Building a Great Company Culture with Trust and Transparency

David Ormesher, CEO and President of closerlook, joins The Best Team Wins podcast to discuss how he’s built a great team through a culture of trust, transparency and healthy relationships.


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Adam Robinson: Welcome to The Best Team Wins podcast, where we feature entrepreneurs whose exceptional approach to the people side of their business has lead to incredible results. My name is Adam Robinson and for the nest twenty-five minutes I’ll be your host as we explore how to build you business through better hiring.

Adam Robinson: Today on the program, David Ormesher is the CEO and president of closerlook, founded in Chicago in nineteen eighty-seven. With offices in Chicago and New York City, closerlook has a hundred employees doing some pretty incredible things.

Adam Robinson: And we are here today to learn from you, David. Thank you for being on the program.

David Ormesher: Thank you very much. It’s my pleasure to be here.

Adam Robinson: So we are here to focus on the people side of closerlook. But before we do that, let’s set the stage. Give us thirty seconds on what you do.

David Ormesher: So in a nutshell, at closerlook, we help physicians and patients learn about the latest in life giving drug therapies.and we do it through a unique combination of relevant and medical content and storytelling with the latest in digital marketing technology and analytics.

David Ormesher: And this, we found, helps everyone. Physicians are equipped to make the best decisions. Patients receive the best therapies, and Pharma brands receive the achieve the best market share of growth.

Adam Robinson: And if listeners want to learn more about the business, what’s the best way for them to do that.

David Ormesher: Easiest best way is to go to closerlook dot com.

Adam Robinson: All right.

David Ormesher: Or they can always email me at DO at closerlook dot com.

Adam Robinson: Okay, so. You have been in business now thirty-one years. Is that correct?

David Ormesher: That’s right. We weren’t doing digital thirty-one years ago. But yeah, we’ve been in business for thirty-one years.

Adam Robinson: Amazing. Congratulations.

David Ormesher: Thank you.

Adam Robinson: So let’s if we could, dial it all the way back to the … I guess this would be the Bush Senior administration.

Adam Robinson: So let’s talk about this. Different time certainly. Pre internet hiring was different in many ways. But in many ways, I can imagine, the same. So take us back to the building of your early team there. Who was coming with you from the network and who, you know, who did you have to hire in?

Adam Robinson: Set the stage for us there.

David Ormesher: Sure. So I started the company with a partner. We were both producers, directors in television. And we made the jump and said, “Hey, let’s start our own production company.”

David Ormesher: In my mind, sort of one of the criteria was, can we actually grow the company to the point where we needed to start hiring people? And I still remember getting to that place and I was actually at a Chicago advertising awards show at the Briar Street Theater back before it was taken over by Blue Man Group.

David Ormesher: And I began networking with this woman sitting next to me. And you know, I think with hiring it’s a combination of your network. It’s technology, but there often a high degree of serendipity. And it turns out she was an experienced producers who was in transition. I was looking for a producer, so I invited her to my office the next day for an interview, and hired her on the spot.

David Ormesher: And she became a key part of the team for the next three or four years.

Adam Robinson: And when you were getting that first hire off the ground, I mean we often talk on this show about early people must be utility players. It changes as you grow. Talk about your mindset in those early days of utility value versus specialist mindset.

David Ormesher: No. I think you nailed it. I think those first hires, they have to be generalists, because there’s a lot that you’re figuring out. A lot that you’re sorting out. Very often during those early years. You haven’t made the key decisions to focus. You’re trying a lot of things. As an entrepreneur you’re very opportunistic. So as you’re building your team, you need people that have that level of flexibility and willingness to go along for the ride.

David Ormesher: Bring their own set of skills and their own experiences but being willing to jump in wherever the need is.

Adam Robinson: So now that’s evolved over the last thirty-one years of course. What has been the biggest change in your approach as the company has grown and progressed over the years?

David Ormesher: Well I will say, about … Boy I would say probably it’s probably eight, nine, years ago now. We made a hard turn. We made some very interesting strategic choices to focus. We had been more of a generalist agency. Certainly in the digital space. But I made a decision to go all in on the pharmaceutical industry, and exclusively digital.

David Ormesher: We wound up resigning a number of our favorite clients, had been with us for many years that were not in healthcare. Were not in Pharma. But it freed us up to focus kind of a laser focused approach on this particular sector.

David Ormesher: And with that came a litany of other choices. Because now we knew exactly who we needed to hire. We knew the capabilities we needed to hire for. And at that point we actually began hiring for various specialist roles in content, in creative, in technology, account management. Project management.

Adam Robinson: This is fascinating. We could talk for an hour I’m sure just on your decision to burn the ships and go full on into a particular vertical. We’ve certainly lived that experience here at Hireology. Adam Robinson: How did that change your talent strategy? You mentioned specialists certainly. Did you find that that shift made it easier? Or less easy to find the team that you needed?

David Ormesher: Well it kind of … it’s a sword that cuts both ways. It made it easier to determine who we needed to hire. What roles we needed to fill. But then finding those people that fit those new roles was actually much more difficult.

David Ormesher: We always would try to in the early days kind of think, okay so we would love someone who’s got deep capabilities in an experience set. Like creative art direction, animation technology. And we would also like them to have some experience in the pharmaceutical industry, because it’s a highly regulated industry with a lot of unique aspects to it.

David Ormesher: It’s hard to get both. Sometimes we would try to hedge and stress one versus the other. And we always felt like that was a bit of a mistake. So it was clear who we needed to hire. We just needed to work a lot harder to go out and find the people who fit those new roles.

Adam Robinson: Where did you learn how to hire?

David Ormesher: You know, our process here to be honest with you, it evolved because I was pretty good at messing up. I learned to hire by messing up. And it took me a couple years but I finally realized that it was too easy for me to fall in love with someone, and then fall victim to confirmation bias.

David Ormesher: You know, I like this person. So then I looked for all the reasons to confirm why they’d be a good fit. And dismiss evidence that they might not. And that always got me in trouble. So it was really that sobering realization that lead to the closerlook process, that we built to allow for my own blind spot.

David Ormesher: And one of the very fist things we did was, it didn’t matter how much I liked someone, there was a larger group, usually a cross functional group hiring interview. And if they didn’t agree with me then they could shoot the candidate down. And it didn’t matter how much I liked that person. If they didn’t pass the larger group test, then they didn’t get hired. Adam Robinson: So one of the best practices I’m hearing you developed is the CEO gets vetoed by the team.

Adam Robinson: Is that unequivocal? Do you have an override?

David Ormesher: Rarely. The only … I’ve probably pulled my trump card once or twice. But it’s always been then that candidate, whether they know it or not, they’re on probation for the next ninety days. Because everybody know that I pulled the trump card. And you know, in reality, I found that it never works. It’s not a good idea, because the benefit of getting everybody’s involvement is then you actually have a whole team that’s invested in the success of that employee.

David Ormesher: When you’ve just got a hiring manager that makes a decision, or me that makes a decision, I’m the only person who’s really on the bubble. Everyone else is like, “Well, I don’t know. I’m telling you.”

David Ormesher: But you know if you’ve got ten people around the table who’ve all say, “Yep, we believe in this person.” Then they’re all vested in making sure that that candidate succeeds.

Adam Robinson: That’s great. So describe for listeners, then, your current hiring process. How do you push candidates through the funnel at closerlook?

David Ormesher: It’s not unusual for it to follow a three stage process. And this can be done in a day. It could last over a week. But typically if someone passes the normal early filter of their resume and experience, they’ll get hired by the person they’re gonna report to. The hiring manager.

David Ormesher: If the hiring manger says, “okay. This is exactly what I’m looking for, then typically they’ll get interviewed by essentially the competency. Do there might be three or four people from the competency that is gonna interview them and that’s really a deep dive into their skill set.

David Ormesher: The thinking there is these people are gonna be in the trenches with this person. And they’re gonna like, “Okay, is this person gonna have my back when times get tough?”

David Ormesher: And so if you know, if they’re a developer they’re at the white board and they’re solving a problem, they’re writing code. Literally in real time.

David Ormesher: If they pass the competency test, then it really is a culture fit. And typically then that is a larger group of eight to ten. Could be completely cross functional. People that are not in their competency. But that’s really more of a …  We’ve got a strong culture here. People know whether someone’s gonna be a fit or not. And that’s the final test.

Adam Robinson: Is there a set of defined core values that you or the team uses to guide these decisions? You know, as far as culture fit or right fit goes?

David Ormesher: There’s definitely a set of core values for closerlook. And in many ways what we’re looking for in the interview is is this person a good fit for those core values. And so a lot of the questions are around that. Is this person gonna work in an environment for which there’s a real commitment to high integrity, to high performance, to transparency?

David Ormesher: Is this person curious? Curiosity is a core value at closerlook. Are they gonna ask really interesting questions and jump into the mix? Do they understand the connection of head and heart? From the very beginning I’ve had this phrasing. You have to teach the heart to move the mind. Do they understand what that means?

David Ormesher: Are they the kind of person who takes their work very seriously but themselves not so much? Do they have a healthy sense of humor? This is all part of the closerlook culture. And this goes back to those very early days when the gut check that I’ve realized I needed to make was if I brought in someone, particularly a senior person who was very savvy at managing up to me. But then we got to the second stage interview and they began to let their arrogance show because they felt like, “I talked to Ormesher. He likes me. I’ve got this in the bag. I don’t really need to impress these people.”

David Ormesher: You know. We try to sniff that out. That arrogance. We try to sniff that out very early.

Adam Robinson: That’s great. So how then do you start somebody into the organization? Or onboard them into the organization to ensure that they actually live those values that you’ve screened for? And that’s a big question. But how do you make it real from the get go once someone’s added to the team?

David Ormesher: We’ve got a pretty comprehensive onboarding process. And a lot of it is relationship oriented. Again, I go back to this fairly involved interview process. And frankly it’s probably got more overhead in the interview process than any of us would really like, but it’s born out because when that new employee walks into the door, they’ve already had in depth conversations with a dozen people. So it’s not like they know their hiring manager.

David Ormesher: They actually are bumping into people at the coffee pot and the hallways and in conference rooms. Or a coffee talk, which is our Monday morning all hands meeting. They’ve already met people. So already they’re beginning that relationship building process. There, typically, that first day they’re out to lunch with their team.

David Ormesher: Within a few weeks I’m sitting down with them. I like to meet every one of our new employees after about two weeks just to kind of check in with them and see how the onboarding is going, and whether it’s meeting expectations or not. And then I’ll come back five months into it. I have another one on one meeting with everyone of our new employees.

David Ormesher: We found that there was a period between six months and twenty-four months when sometimes new employees would wash out. They’d fail out. And I wanted to figure out what was wrong. It was just a misalignment of expectations. Was someone not listening? Or communicating? And so I said, “I want to meet with everyone of our employees at the five month point before they get into that window to really understand what’s working what’s not working.

David Ormesher: And are there barriers that they’re perceiving to their success here. And that is has enabled us to really quickly determine, is this person gonna be a long term fit or not? And if not, is there an elegant way to make the transition?

Adam Robinson: All right. So let’s look then at the leadership team. We talked about core values. We talked about onboarding, and of course, as you scale the business now, you’ve hired a pretty fair number of new people in the last year. What kind of leadership team is required at this stage of the life cycle to really make this land as you grow the business?

David Ormesher: Clearly at the top we’ve got kind of the seed level team, if you will. So I’ve got five people on my leadership team. Two of them have been with me for almost twenty years each. A third has been with me for ten years. And then I’ve got two that have been with me for less than two years. So it’s a great combination of long trusted relationships with the benefit of fresh thinking.

David Ormesher: And then below that there’s a team of about fifteen that really make up an extended leadership team. And they’re folks that we meet with on a regular basis. We have off site management team meetings with them.they really have bought into the business as well. And I would say the average tenure there is probably seven, eight, years.

Adam Robinson: Fantastic. Tactically then, with that team, those values and the process for getting people launched … Let’s talk tactically about management, you know, in a day in the life. Talk to us about the philosophy around rewards and recognition.

Adam Robinson: You know. What is the overriding philosophy at closerlook? You know, on the scale of money’s the biggest motivating factor versus career opportunity or intangibles? Where do you guys fall on that scale?

David Ormesher: It’s kind of a complicated answer. You know, one phrase that I latched onto years ago, that I heard first from a woman. She the executive director of a nonprofit called Icy Stars. Her name is Sandy Casterol. And Sandy has this definition of leadership as, leadership is creating opportunities for others.

David Ormesher: And I’ve always loved that. And part of what I see my role here at Closer Look is how do I create opportunities for others? How do I create opportunities for my employees? How do create new opportunities for our clients? But specifically since we’re talking about employees here, I really want to create an environment here at closerlook that is really defined by continuous learning.

David Ormesher: Where people are on small self directed teams that are close to the business that have a fair level of autonomy, but still have the ability to escalate issues or questions to senior people with a lot more experience.

David Ormesher: But I don’t want to micro manage them. I love to push them out on the edge where they really are as close to the customer as they need to be. So, I think for many of our employees one of the greatest values they get out of their experience at closerlook is that they’re learning things. They’re growing. They’re growing their own career.

David Ormesher: They’re learning leadership at perhaps a faster clip than they would anywhere else. We do a lot of the recognition piece. And we do it in a fun way.every Monday morning we have this all hands meeting. It’s a twenty minute meeting at eight forty AM called coffee talk.

David Ormesher: And everybody comes together. I facilitate it. But it’s a way to kind of check in on what are people working on for the week. But as a part of every coffee talk, we also announce people who are now nominees for our monthly eagle claw award. Essentially our employee of the month. But to nominate someone, you’ve got to write a paragraph about what they did the previous week that went above and beyond the call of duty.

David Ormesher: So during coffee talk I throw up the photos of the people that have been nominated from the previous week. Including the quotes that people wrote about them. And it usually catches them off guard, and they’re you know, a little embarrassed. But also very pleased because what they did was noticed. And then at the end of the month, the previous month’s nominees vote on that month’s eagle claw, and we have a big … You know, there’s a big award that they get.

David Ormesher: It’s kind of crazy. Kind of nutty. But it’s a nice fun way to recognize people. But then the real issue, I think that people want to think about, or ask about, it comp. And I would say this. In terms of compensation at the core, we want to be and we need to be market competitive. That’s without question. But after that it’s always a conversation. And if someone comes to me or they come to their manager and says, “I want to talk about compensation.”

David Ormesher: Then the question is, “where do you need to be to get happy with your total comp?” And once there’s sort of agreement around what that is, then our response is, “Okay, well, let’s see if we can frame a path of increasing capability, increasing responsibility, increasing value creation that gets you there so that it makes sense for both of us.

David Ormesher: I can’t just write you a check the day you ask. But it’s not unusual at all for someone to set a goal, and then together we say, “Okay let’s look over the next six to twelve months. How do we get you there? What’s gonna be good for the business? And good for you?”  And if you hit these goals of increased responsibility and value creation, then it makes sense for us to write that check.

Adam Robinson: So what I’ve found, certainly in talking with some of the leading culture creators on this podcast is a lot of what you’ve described in terms of engagement, right? The coffee talks, and the opportunities to do more than just your job. It’s opportunities to engage with your peers, and to learn and to grow. And of course the comp philosophy and the actual pay check discussion that we just had certainly lends itself to that.

Adam Robinson: Curious. Over the last thirty years, have you seen a shift in any way about the prevalence of teams wanting more of that engagement? Peer engagement. Has it always been that way in your opinion? Or is that a more recent development?

David Ormesher: I think it’s always been true. I think there’s a lot made of sort of basic requirements of millennials and how they want more purpose and more engagement. You know. We didn’t have millennials working at Closer Look thirty-one years ago. We had a lot of boomers and some gen xers. I would say though, at it’s core, we’re all people, and we all get motivated by engagement by relationships.

David Ormesher: We all need trust. We all need relationships that are based in trust. I think in a business you can mess up in a lot of areas, but if there isn’t a bedrock of trust, it doesn’t matter how much you pay someone or compliment them. Your working relationship will be purely opportunistic and short term.

David Ormesher: So I think some of these core values … things like transparency … I mean one of the reasons I’ve always run the company with an open book philosophy is because it sends a message to everyone that I trust them with knowing our finances. You know. They become part of the family, you’re part of the family.

David Ormesher: There are certain things you keep in the family. This is one of them it comes as a shock to some of our new employees. But it says, “We’re really committed to transparency.” And that becomes a cornerstone of trust. And that really, I think, is the bedrock of good healthy relationships.

Adam Robinson: Is there one biggest lesson learned, or philosophy that you carry with you now as you continue to grow the team?

David Ormesher: I think it’s over communication. It’s always communicating. It’s never making assumptions. I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that communication is ultimately defined by what the other person heard. Not by what I said.

David Ormesher: And knowing that everybody is hearing the words that I’m speaking through a variety of filters. I can’t assume that everybody is necessarily interpreting it the same way I said it. So saying it more than once, saying it different ways, but more importantly creating an environment of trust that allows people to raise their hand and go, “I’m not sure I got that.” Or, “I’m not sure I agree with that.”

David Ormesher: And creating that platform for that level of openness and candor, and wrestling with the issues. To me that’s what ultimately makes for a healthy company. Healthy culture. And frankly employees that are personally invested in the overalls success of the term.

Adam Robinson: As you developed this personal philosophy towards leadership, was there a particular book or individual that you can point at and say, “You know that was a really influential bit of learning that is really still something that you put into practice today?”

David Ormesher: Well, you know, there’s a guy named Dan Sullivan who runs a company called Strategic Coach. And one of the key insights I got from him was the importance of identifying and defining your unique ability. And how all of us throughout the organization … all of us have a unique ability. And part of my job as a leader at closerlook is to help people discover what their unique ability is, and then fashion a role for them that allows them to maximize their time working within their unique ability.

David Ormesher: And as we all do that as a team … as I find ways to delegate things that are not my unique ability to other people, and create a unique ability team, where those people now are working within their unique ability, that’s when we’re all working in flow.

David Ormesher: And I think … You know, one of the questions I love to ask when I’m doing an interview is, “Tell me about your best day ever at work.”

David Ormesher: And what I find when people respond to that, they’re basically telling me what their unique ability is. They’re telling me what was that day where they most experienced flow. And if I can discover that, then that tells me everything I need to know about what kinds of activities they need to be engaged in. Whether they really are management. Or whether they’re a specialist.

David Ormesher: And as we basically work people into these unique ability teams, I’ve found that’s where people are most productive. That’s where they’re the happiest. That’s where they’re really creating value is when they’re working within their unique ability.

Adam Robinson: If you were to come back on this show a year from now, and report whether or not you were able to successfully tackle what you consider to be the single biggest team or people related opportunity that you have in the business right now, what would you hopefully be telling us happened?

David Ormesher: Well we’re in this very interesting transformation now from, I would say, probably more traditional siloed functional org deign to small teams. And so I would hope that a year from now I can report that we’ve evolved to an organization based on small self directed agile teams that are on a continuous path of learning. And that are creating ever increasing value for our clients by listening better. And imagining more.

Adam Robinson: Ladies and gentlemen, that is the final word. You’ve been learning today from David Ormesher. CEO and president of closerlook. David, thank you so much for being with us today.

David Ormesher: Adam, my pleasure. Thank you.

Adam Robinson: Ladies and gentlemen, that is a wrap for this weeks episode of The Best Team Wins podcas,t where we’re featuring entrepreneurs whose exceptional approach to the people side of their business has lead to incredible results. My name is Adam Robinson, author of the book The Best Team Wins, which you can find online at www dot The Best Team Wins dot com. Thanks for tuning in, and we will see yeah here next week.