Business Services Podcast

Talent Strategy Trends and Insights

Mike Burnett of the Alexander Group interviews Jessica Studholme of Bustle Digital Group on her best practices for employee experience, improving talent architecture, developing strategic talent architecture, sales compensation plans, and coaching and recognition programs.

Mike Burnett: Welcome everyone to the Alexander group podcast where we explore the latest trends and insights in revenue growth and sales effectiveness. I’m your host, Mike Burnett, principal and co-leader of the business services practice here.

And today we have a very special guest joining us, Jessica Studholme, senior vice president of sales at Bustle Digital Group. Just as background, Jessica has over 30 years of experience and go-to-market. She’s also joined us in some of the research and briefings that we conducted in the past around a very specific topic and really the topic of today, which is around talent management and strategies to make sure that we are retaining and also attracting top talent and go-to-market functions. With that, Jessica, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining and please tell our audience a little bit more about yourself.

Jessica Studholme: Thank you, Mike. I’m so excited to be here today. And a little bit about me is that thank you so much for detailing my experience. You’re making me sound very old, but that’s okay. I live in Los Angeles. I live in Westwood and I have three crazy children that keep me on my toes on a daily basis and love what I do.

Love being at Bustle Digital Group. I remind my team every day that thankfully we are not in the medical industry incurring cancer. We are simply trying to get advertising campaigns off the ground.

Mike Burnett: Really eager to get some of your thoughts and to tee up today’s conversation I’m going to recap some of the research that I know we’ve discussed together in the past. Just for the audience’s background, the Alexander group conducted research with top organizations around what are some of the top trends that high-performing commercial teams are doing as it relates to talent management and talent strategy more broadly. There were five main areas that came out of that research.

One was organizations are really looking to improve employee experience. I think the things like workplace flexibility, driving positive culture and really being open-minded in terms of the work experience for employees.

Second was improving their talent architecture. What are the things that drive people to stay? Leave? How do we make sure that we’re attracting the right talent on board?

Third was developing a strategic talent architecture. So defining and measuring what are the competencies and skills that are required to be successful in a go-to-market team.

Fourth was trying to be more proactive in terms of how they assess and update and improve their compensation and total rewards programs.

And lastly, was really being more prescriptive to their leadership team in terms of better coaching and recognition programs at large for the organization. As I mentioned, those were the five areas that came out of the study. Jessica, I’m curious, are there any areas in particular that really resonated to you or things that you can maybe offer some experience on?

Jessica Studholme: Absolutely. All five are so critical in terms of the way that we’re moving our business forward today and every day. I would say that at BDG we’re very focused on employee experience. We’re constantly laser-focused on talent acquisition and then along with that moving through that strategic talent architecture.

I feel like if we are not constantly focused on improvement and evolution, you’re in the state just for disaster.

Mike Burnett: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I think a lot of people would agree with that sentiment and it probably resonates well with the audience. I guess maybe let’s double-click into each of those if you don’t mind.

And I think we should probably start with employee experience because I would imagine that informs a lot of the decisions that are being made on some of those other topics. But I’m curious, what are some of the trends that you’re seeing in the market as it relates to how go-to-market leaders are thinking about employee experience?

Or are there any specific examples you can think of things that BDG has done that’s been really instrumental in trying to improve employee experience?

Jessica Studholme: Definitely. I feel and I think we can all relate to this. If covid taught us anything and it taught us a lot. It’s that we are resilient beyond measure.

We’re resilient beyond what we ever expected we could be. And addressing the flexibility in terms of marketplace in terms of where you’re working from and how you’re working has been clutch to keeping our employees not only engaged, but also connected to the overall machine. One of the quotes that I love that I’ve been hearing all through COVID and obviously after is we’ve never been so connected visually, but disconnected in every other way.

Think about before COVID, how many times did you really truly do video calls? And so I think that it is an interesting kind of a lens for us to look at our business through. I think that what we have also really leaned into is the ability and the acceptance of failing fast, right? We are in a market right now that is full of volatility. The minute that we think we’re seeing a pattern, that pattern is gone.

My best advice for myself and everyone that I work with is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. And when I say uncomfortable, it’s uncomfortable in every single sense and regard, uncomfortable with the fact that you used to actually physically drive to an office. Now you walk down the hall to your dining room table.

The real emphasis in terms of evolution is what I go back to on a daily basis, and I think that leaning into just that pure nimbleness is what keeps us all really, truly engaged again and on point.

One of the things that we pride ourselves here at BDG is again, as I mentioned before, to fail fast. And when I think back to when I was recruited to join the company, my president, Jason Wagenheim said to me, Hey, listen, feel free to break it because if you break it, if you break this process, you’re going to be the first. And if anything, it teaches us again to truly go back and say, all right, so we broke that we’re not going to do that again. This is how we’re going to tweak. This is how we’re going to evolve. You’ll hear me say that a lot today in terms of just constantly reminding ourselves. Okay, you failed. Awesome. That’s great. Now we know we’re not going to do that again and we’re going to actually do it differently.

Mike Burnett: Yeah, Jessica, I’d love to maybe follow up on that because I love the concept and it takes courage, quite frankly, to follow that and live by that from a leadership standpoint.

It sounds like you had support from the top down. I’m curious for a lot of the folks that report into you. Was that a shift in culture for them in terms of accepting that mentality or for employees? Or was it an easy transition?

Jessica Studholme: 100%. I hope that they found it refreshing. I think that I came from a tremendous amount of, I would say, more old school companies, these big, giant conglomerates where it wasn’t as small. We didn’t move as fast as we do at Bustle Digital Group. So I would say that it is very refreshing. And it’s also freeing in a way to know that you can fall down and that the people around you are going to say, yeah, that’s awesome. Great. You fell down. Let’s get back up. Let’s figure out how we do it differently. I think that when we talk about that and part of your question leads me into how we really train our leaders here at BDG and what we really lean into in terms of highlighting key characteristics. And I think that’s, truly rooted into a couple things.

It’s about trust. I’m trusting this person, this live human that has a beating heart, which is what we always talk about. Like we’re live human beings here that have feelings and emotions and everything in between. I trust them that I’ve hired them to do this job and that I know that they can do it.

I also seek their advice and input. I think that’s something that is really hard to do on a daily basis and to make it feel like feedback as we call it in the air quotes is something that is done often, it is done early and it’s done constantly.

And also just to make sure that we’re challenging each other. I’m challenging them. They’re challenging me to do bigger and better things. And to do that with dignity and respect, right? Because at the end of the day, I think truly, and this, I know I’m going a little bit all over the place in terms of the topics that we’re talking about today.

But I do think that’s why people stay. And that’s a cliche, right? But I do find a lot of truth in it. People stay at an organization for people. They do. They stay at an organization because of the mentorship of the opportunity and of the overall ability to grow.

Mike Burnett: Yeah. So you pivoted for me, which is great into our second topic.

So I was going to say, if you remember some of the things we talked about in the research was what used to be very much or at least what organizations used to operate under was the idea that ultimately paying compensation is what drives people to stay or to jump ship. And I think it was interesting is the study highlighted while that still may be the case in some industries, a very close second is flexibility.

And really the clarity around what the opportunity that lies ahead for them actually is. So making sure they have visibility into what the future can hold. I would love your thoughts on that. Beyond just having strong leadership is what helping to retain folks.

What are some of the things that you’ve seen? Are there any things that BDG has done in particular to try to help your talent retention in acquisition strategy?

Jessica Studholme: Yeah, I love it. Mike, I’m going to go back in time to last summer when I had my first experience with you at the compensation symposium. And you and your team presented something there that has stuck with me for the last 12 months, which is it’s not necessarily a thematic now that people are jumping ship and leaving a company.

They want to look for a lattice kind of growth within their current company. And it’s something that we’ve talked about a lot at Bustle Digital Group. But the concept of what are we doing as a company to promote growth, to promote opportunities within. You talked about compensation being a main driver, which I completely agree with.

I think I even mentioned this to you on that symposium, which is it was a real wake up call for all of us who do a lot of the interviewing at BDG when we were in the midst of probably the last 12 to 18 months. It wasn’t necessarily the first question about compensation. The first question was, is this a hybrid work environment? Can I work from anywhere? It was very almost like a jarring that would be their question. It led us to really leaning in on the discussion that deep dive into why are people staying and going? I believe that people stay for 3 core reasons. I think that you said it perfectly in terms of flexibility.

I would go a step farther and talk about freedom. Can they be free to be who they are? Do they have autonomy in their work? Do they have autonomy in their schedule? Obviously, we have an accountability. We have an accountability mandate for lack of a better term. We all want to be accountable and we all are stressing that on each other, but to be able to work from anywhere, to be able to do your job in a different way than we did before, I think is key.

The second thing I would lean into is the story. What story are you creating for yourself and for your overarching career? How does that fit in to the path that you want to look back in 10 years? And say that you were manifesting, right? So in our company right now, we have created a new series of levels.

So for instance, if you look back two years ago, it was basically my level which is SVP, and then a collection of sellers. Now we have a level in between SVP and sellers for our VPs. And that has literally changed the trajectory of not only growth within the organization, time management, the ability to focus truly on what your rigor and what your job description truly means, which or all of our levels is so incredibly different. It’s allowed the frontline salespeople to actually do that job and to lean in to their leaders, to whether or not it be fighting the fires internally, fighting the fires externally. It really does help them create an overarchingly mold their story.

And then finally, it fits right into what I was just saying, growth. How do you find ways to grow? How do you really look within your organization and say, what’s my next step? Oh, that is very clear to see. That is very clear to see that I’ve got an opportunity, whether or not it’s moving within my current office, moving cities, moving into a different division.

I think one of the beautiful things about being on the publisher side is that we have so many different divisions within the company, whether or not you want to focus on journalism. You want to focus on design, engineering, marketing sales. Who doesn’t want to do sales, right? It’s like the dream job much more in terms of like underneath our portfolio.

Mike Burnett: That’s great. So there’s a couple of things you touched on that I think are a natural segue into the third point that I think we want to cover off on, which is based on, having a more rigorous talent architecture put in place. And there’s a couple of things that you mentioned. I’m curious if this has influenced some of the decisions you’ve made regarding that topic.

One is we’re now in a remote setting. It favors different skills. It requires different skills in order for people to be successful. And, there’s also this generational shift in terms of preference in terms of where they want to go, what they want to do, what they’re looking for a career.

And flexibility has been a main topic here. And you got to build some form of architecture for them to climb to your point. So you talked about Lattice. I guess I’m curious, any other things that you would maybe add on that topic that maybe we haven’t covered off on in terms of the importance of putting that architecture in place or things that you’ve done that you think have been really key to the success for BDG as of late?

Jessica Studholme: Yeah, I like how you said it’s so politically correct about the generational differences. It has been a very interesting experience to hire folks on our team that have had no work experience in an actual office. We hired them potentially when they just graduated from college and their entire work experience has been what we now know as the new normal.

That requires some really in depth training. And it’s different training because whereas I laugh with my colleagues about this a lot. When we grew up, we were observing by osmosis what was going on in an office. I would look at how you were interacting with another individual, and I would take so much from that, right? In terms of how I was supposed to act, how I was supposed to behave. The list goes on.

Now it’s a lot more direct, right? And it’s a lot more of these are things that you would think would be elementary, that someone would just know that you are now spelling out for them. I also think that it has highlighted different skill sets to your point that you need to be able to be successful. Before we weren’t necessarily in the practice of being on video calls all day, every day back to backs where you really, truly didn’t have a break and you had to be quote unquote on all day.

Which poses another whole list of concerns and issues, but all of which I think if I really dig deep into where our issues have been, it’s education. It’s truly educating this team about new ways to behave and new ways to bring themselves to work. And it’s teaching to use different muscles, which haven’t maybe ever been used.

And you’re willing to then also have a little bit of grace with folks in terms of falling down and picking them back up. There’s a quote in my life that I love. I’m an avid yogi. That is fall down seven, rise eight. And I think about that a lot in terms of my everyday management style with my own team, which leads me to feedback often in early.

I think I said that a couple of minutes ago, but I don’t ever want feedback to feel like feedback. Who wants to get on a call and say, okay, I’ve got some feedback for you. It’s more of a real time conversation, real time listening to each other in terms of what maybe went wrong, maybe what went right, what we could improve.

And I also think the other thing that I think is really interesting, and I think it’s missing from a lot of big organizations and small everywhere in between is not just listening to the person across the table from you, but listening and being alert to the whole holistic ecosystem for lack of a better term, that is, that makes up the company.

The real challenge for me and for everybody is then separating that separating what is potentially noise in the background to what is the real issue. And I think that gets complicated when you don’t have the day to day interaction that we used to have. It’s more of okay, I want to talk to you about that now I have to schedule a separate zoom versus, Hey Mike, I’m going to come over to your desk. I want to chat with you about this really quick. It feels much more formal than it used to.

Mike Burnett: In an overly structured world now where we’re managed by appointments and everything’s calendar and very finite in terms of time bound. You miss out on some of these organic opportunities that you used to have very fluid conversation and learning moments without realizing you’re actually in the moment. And I think to your point, you got to be able to operate within this new norm, but still have some of that fluidity.

And that’s an art, I would say, and a skill that not everyone necessarily has. So it’s something you have to really focus on and develop. So I think it makes complete sense in terms of what you were calling out there.

Jessica Studholme: 100%. You obviously said it much better and much more succinctly than I did. But the other thing that I would also say that we have really leaned into as a company over the course of the last 12 to 18 months is that need for mentorship, right?

It’s the need for mentorship and encouraging talent, because I think that now, more than ever, people are looking for guidance. They are looking for clarity. They are looking for those things that might feel intrinsic to one person, not so obvious to another. So you really have to be direct in terms of spelling things out.

And I don’t mean that pejoratively. It in terms of let’s really encourage clarity.

Mike Burnett: Jessica, thank you so much again for the time and all of your insights and thank you all listeners for joining. That’s it for today’s episode of the Alexander group podcast. We hope you found the discussion enlightening, gathered some insights and information from Jessica that was helpful. Hopefully we can have Jessica back at some point to join us on another episode.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out to us at alexandergroup. com or via LinkedIn. And lastly, don’t forget to subscribe to our insights newsletter for more great content on revenue growth and sales effectiveness.

Thanks for listening.

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