As anyone who’s ever worked at an agency knows, the work environment provides ample opportunity for professional growth. Juggling multiple clients and projects at once, employees get exposure, gain experience, and can hone their craft — if they stick around. But the fast-paced, high-energy environments of agencies can leave employees burned out, and ultimately cause them to seek employment elsewhere. Agencies are well-known for their high turnover, and many firms accept this, opting to simply build employee churn into their People strategies.
But not Shaan Coelho. Coelho is the founder of revenue, operations, and culture consulting firm 3RBTS Consulting and a Lattice professional services consultant. He believes in building happy, healthy company cultures and getting real with employees about what would incentivize them to stay.
Coelho has done everything from creating cultural initiatives to streamlining People operations. He’s built and implemented systems for talent management and employee performance, managed employee relations, and created more efficient and effective processes for the many facets of Human Resources management at agencies — all while rapidly scaling teams. We sat down with Coelho to hear more about the unique set of challenges that come with Human Resources Management in an agency. Here’s what he had to say.
Shaan Coelho on HR Agency Life
Lattice: Tell us about your background and how you’ve gotten to where you are today.
Shaan Coelho: I came up in the marketing and advertising world in New York and ended up finding my way into VaynerMedia, which is Gary Vaynerchuk’s agency. It was based in New York at the time with fewer than 100 people there, and it was like a rocket ship.
I jumped in there super young and had never worked in an agency before. I had a ton of questions about some of the most basic components of agency life, [like] how to write a client-facing email [and] how to draft an agenda. But it was a really supportive environment for me where I could learn.
Lattice: Wow, amazing! How long were you there? And what did you do next?
SC: I spent two years in New York, rising up through the ranks and growing and learning. And then I was asked to go to Los Angeles and open up the LA office and help grow, run, and support that office.
I spent another two years in LA taking a team of five people to 85 people. So [there was] a lot of hiring, a lot of growth, a lot of development, [and] a lot of restructuring in service models — [things] like “How do we make this agency work for this particular market and these particular types of clients, but also for our employees?”
Lattice: Is that when you started to home in on HR?
SC: Yes, that was my first foray into owning company culture and having a proper HR management function in addition to our HR team members. We had an official HR rep there, but I was more focused on helping to accelerate the function’s strategy and manage the HR department overall.
Then I spent a year in London doing the same thing — [going from] seven people to about 50 people in a year. It was another one of those crazy sprints — lots of hiring, lots of structuring, [and] lots of development programs.
Lattice: How did you transition from VaynerMedia to running your personal consulting company?
SC: I was at VaynerMedia until 2017 and then took some time off and lived many different lives in different parts of the world. I was a sailor in Greece for a while, a farmer and a winemaker in Italy, and then a mixed martial artist in Bali while I tried a different way of life. Eventually, I decided to come back into consulting and go out on my own.
Now I help support agencies in different parts of the world across three key areas: revenue, operations, and culture. [I deal with questions like], how do you make more money? How do you make sure that that money is being spent efficiently and effectively from a product and services model? And then, how do you build healthy, happy teams?
Lattice: That sounds like a mix of the work you’d previously done, coupled with some new challenges. Have you had any clients for whom you were more focused on culture and People than revenue or operations?
SC: Yes, in Dubai. My whole role there was HR-focused. I had been doing high-level consulting and support for the CEO of a 50 to 55-person agency based there, and one of the big things he came to me with was [saying], “I really want to double down on People.” And [my response was], “Well, does everyone know what they need to be doing? Does everyone know what their job is? And do people know what they need to be doing to grow?” And he was like, “Kind of but not really.”
So I went to Dubai to overhaul the performance management and growth and development system for the agency. When I arrived they said to me, “We really want to overhaul our People function. Can you help us build a system to make sure that we’re actually effectively growing and developing our team?”
Lattice: How did you end up hearing about and working with Lattice?
SC: I created a system based on what I had learned was most important and necessary — professional growth and development [and] regular touchpoints between employees and management, [and] engaging employees and building a strong culture to support employee retention.
I started looking for tools that had feature sets that matched the processes that I built. And lo and behold, I found Lattice, and thought, “This is going to plug in so nicely.”
Lattice: We imagine that having a system that aligns with your approach and beliefs on human capital management (HCM) and performance management (PM) is super helpful. Do you see PM as especially critical or different in an agency than in other, corporation-like companies?
SC: I think agencies can be especially well-suited to the positive effects of good performance management. One of the benefits that agencies can present is that there is often a mindset of adaptability.
That’s because so much of what we do in the agency world is to learn about a new product and service from a new client, and then try to figure out how we apply what we know to a new business, industry, product, or audience.
That mindset lends itself really well when you think about people. And performance management is [about], “How do we explore systems and processes to grow the team?” Agency individuals tend to be adaptable to changing [something], breaking it, [and] trying new things, and that’s a big point of differentiation versus a lot of traditional “corporate structures,” where I think a lot of people don’t have that mindset or that mentality.
Lattice: Agencies traditionally have high rates of turnover. How do you work to counter that? What is the importance of building happy, healthy cultures as a tool to battle turnover?
SC: The industry typically has a lot of that, but I don’t accept that with my teams. How [to] actively work against that? For me, it’s about creating an environment of trust and transparency. If I really know what my team wants — in life, not just in their job — I can work to help them get it.
If we can have a really honest conversation [about] what you want from this job or in your career, I, in my position, can architect a way to make sure that you get that as long as you give me some of the things that we need organizationally.
If you can be really clear on what everyone’s motivators, drivers, and ultimately, your agenda points are, then you can craft these performance plans that are a direct reflection of the individual’s desired growth and the organization’s necessary objectives.
Lattice: How do you go about eliciting that information from your teams? It all comes down to relationships, but that has to occur on several different levels, right? It has to be coming from the top but also, presumably, it needs to be a touchpoint during one-on-ones with managers and part of everyday conversations, is that right?
SC: Absolutely. You have to live it and breathe it. One of the hardest things in the agency world is onboarding and offboarding. It’s really expensive to constantly be offboarding, backfilling, hiring, and onboarding new employees. It’s emotionally taxing and financially straining.
It’s our responsibility to create environments that incentivize people to stay. And it’s not the same thing for everybody; it’s different for different people at different stages in their life. So it’s up to HR to build systems where, 1) HR can get that information from employees, and 2) HR can do their best to give employees some of what they want. At the end of the day, it all comes down to communication, trust, and transparency.
Lattice: Can you give us an example of what that might look like?
SC: For example, say a new business comes in and it [has] a PR focus. I look at our team and staffing needs, and think about how I can use this as an opportunity to give someone the chance to work on something they’ve expressed an interest in. I do my best to rearrange what I can, and give the client to the team member who told me early on during a trusted conversation that, “Not only do I want to work at this agency and grow my social media skills because that’s the job I signed up for, but I’m curious about PR as a territory, and I’d love to grow and nurture that space.”
You can’t always do it. But when you can, I think you have to because if you don’t tee up learning experiences employees have expressed interest in — that they’ve shared thanks to the trust you’ve built in the relationship — then they’re going to leave. Or they’re going to be unhappy, and then they’re going to leave. And so it goes back to being able to understand what people want and how you can be as accommodating as possible.
Lattice: What do you say, for example, if you can’t make it work for them?
SC: The important thing is to communicate, to be upfront about what happened. Saying something like, “Hey, I know you really wanted to work on this PR account. You have a really integral relationship with these other clients. We can’t move you. And I know we said we were going to, but I can’t do it right now. Just know that I’m aware of it. I feel bad about it, and I’m going to try to make it up to you in some way, shape, or form.” Honesty goes a long way.
Lattice: Agency life often means working with a small and mighty team responsible for many different functions and at various stages of careers. How do you see the challenges associated with that?
SC: I think one challenge is trying to create space for all the personalities that are a part of the environment. You have to be able to meet people where they are, and everyone is at a different place when it comes to their level of self-awareness — being able to understand their progression from a career perspective, being able to communicate what they want in a productive and constructive environment, and also being able to navigate their own emotional state.
When you’re supporting a lot of people who are at varying stages in their careers, you have to figure out how to meet people where they are and still be able to get your job done. I think oftentimes Human Resources departments get overlooked [and seen as] just pushing papers, but [HR] is really about connecting with people and trying to understand how you can make people feel seen and safe. And that’s actually the real value driver companies are referring to when they talk about people being the most important thing in an agency or organization. But if you don’t actually prioritize people and try to make sure that you’re supporting them, the messaging becomes more like platitudes than actual values.
While Coelho makes it sound easy, Human Resources management within an agency setting undoubtedly requires a unique approach. For those struggling with the common pain points of agency life, like high turnover or poor workplace culture, consider seeking external support. Lattice’s Advisory Services partners with top HR consultants to translate data into actionable insights and change at your agency. Lattice’s Advisory team will work to identify your agency’s People goals and initiatives and build a People Program Model that will enable you to reach them.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.