Defining a culture early may not seem important with all the tasks of an early-stage start-up. Many other things may seem more important than defining a culture early. However, when you have a solid base to build on, it is easier. One big reason is that each person you hire is essential at the beginning of any company — you want to make sure you get it right. Today’s guest is Erin Willet, a Managing Partner at Assured Consulting Solutions. Inc Magazine ranked this company #746 on the 2020 Inc list. This is their third consecutive year on the list. Assured Consulting Solutions delivers solutions and architectures that use leading-edge concepts and technologies that help their clients take advantage of the opportunities associated with large data sets. Erin shares why defining a culture early has been so crucial to creating a company to grow fast. We look at the foundational elements of culture in an early-stage business. Discover why defining a culture early will help you lead a company that serves your clients well too.
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Erin Willett: The Transcript
About: Erin (Briska) Willett Managing Partner & FSO at Assured Consulting Solutions (ACS), a Woman-Owned Small Business (WOSB). ACS delivers advanced technology solutions and strategic support services in support of critical national security missions for Intelligence, Defense, and Federal Civilian customers. ACS is always in search of great talent to help us solve our customers’ most complex challenges. If being part of an energetic and forward-thinking company that offers you great benefits and is committed to your success.
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.
Erin Willett: [00:00:00] I have never been an owner of a company that is the size before. This is a pretty big deal. Mandy and I talk about that all the time, where we’re kind of learning new things as we go. We’re learning how to trust in different ways. Everything’s been my baby. So internally until a handful of months ago, brand HR and was the HR person. I did the it. So if you had a computer that broke, I fixed it for you. I am the ethics and compliance officer, the facility security. So we’re a lot of hats. Well, Of course ACS my baby. How do you give those hats to others and let them for us? So I’m learning how to take a little step back and to not only just empower button courage, this next around leaders internally, we have a wonderful new director of HR. We welcome Dane director of information security this year and a brand new it guru who is. Actually good at what he does like, so I’m learning to take a step back and try to watch them just really grow in their own decisions.
[00:01:02] Intro: [00:01:02] Welcome to growth think tank. This is the 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?
[00:01:19] Gene Hammett: [00:01:19] Your culture is more than just what you say. It is. Culture is the underlying elements of how you communicate, how things get done in your organization. There’s a lot of unsaid things, but you want to make sure that you’re defining your culture early. I say that because I talked to a lot of companies straight up that wished they would have had a much more of a foundation of the culture before they started scaling out. Because those early hires, they had to let go of them because they didn’t fit the culture that really they wanted to have once they understood culture was important. But defining your culture early is such an important piece to this. I’ve done many episodes of it. I had one of the co-founders of Netflix on the show talking about defining your culture early. I’ve had many other companies in different sectors of the market. Talk about the importance of defining your culture early. One of the people had been on the show before even hired a chief people officer. As it’s like a third or fourth employee, as I remember really unheard of because you really want to make sure you’re scaling up the company, but all of these people knew. What I know is culture is the foundation that you want to build upon and you want to get it done, right? Just like a house you want a strong foundation, to support your house. You want a strong culture early, and you want to do that as a leader today, we have a co-founder. Erin Willett with Assured Consulting Solutions. They are a government contractor, but unlike most of them you’ve heard of, they really do believe in servicing the client, creating value, and really creating a culture where people feel like family. Erin talks about that. Inside this episode, to help you get an understanding of why culture is so important, what is it? What are the core elements that really drive it? And I want you to tune into this. If you want to create a place. Where people don’t want to leave. You want to have an incredibly high retention rate. Now, if you are listening to these episodes, you keep coming back because you want to be an extraordinary leader. Well, one of the best steps I know is to get on the phone with me and let’s map out a plan I’d love to support you and how you’re going to grow your business, and what specific steps you need to do.
[00:03:22] Next. I’ve done this many, many times before some of those people become clients. But some don’t, they’re able to take that plan and actually go execute. And I’m okay with either. If you have an interest in talking to me about your leadership and growth of the company, then make sure you check out genehammett.com. Just go to start your journey. You can apply to speak with me. Find time I’ll support. We’ll develop that plan. I’ll help you any way I can. You don’t have to be on the Inc 5,000, but you do have to be hungry for growth. And I want to support you when you’re ready. Now here’s the interview with Erin.
[00:03:55] Erin, how are you?
[00:03:59] Gene Hammett: [00:03:59] Fantastic. Love to have a conversation about leadership and culture with fast-growth companies. I’ve already let our audience do a little bit about you personally and what we talk about today, but I’d love for you to share your story of assured consulting.
[00:04:12] Erin Willett: [00:04:12] So if it’s a pretty fun story, but I’ll give you the short and sweet, I guess since we don’t have all the time in the world, but first, thanks for having me. I’m really excited to get to know you a little bit better and to share a whole lot about what makes ACS so special. So at. Consulting solutions. We affectionately call it ACS because nobody wants to say all those words every single time. We support national security missions most primarily for the defense and intelligence community. We are a company of just under a hundred staff members. We founded back in 2011 and there’s a bit of a, of a story that goes behind that, but it was a slow, quiet start in 2011 because. Two weeks after founding ACS. I found out I was expecting my, my now almost nine-year-old son. So I kind of put those dreams of business ownership on the back burner a little bit, you know, did a little bit of, of small bits of consulting here and there under the ACS heading kind of mood lighting for a little while, enjoying my health insurance, of course. And then and then Sue, 2013, we opened our doors to full-time business operations.
[00:05:14] Gene Hammett: [00:05:14] Well, you’ve got some incredible success behind you. You made the in-class three times and you had some, you got as low as four 36 on the list. I know that it’s never just about you hitting these growth milestones. What did it, what was it like for your team to be able to celebrate this kind of growth?
[00:05:32] Erin Willett: [00:05:32] Our team is so much more than a team. We call ourselves a family. So, from the very, very beginning, what makes us special? Our special sauce as an organization, we founded ACS to be a different defense contractor. So I’m not sure how much your audience’s kind of aware of what the defense contracting community is like, but it’s very impersonal. A lot of the companies are very large. They kind of forget that we’re in a services industry and that our employees are the center of what we do and they are why we exist. So when Mandy Parmer my business partner and I opened those doors in 2013 and welcomed employees and started doing great things. We said we wanted to do it differently. We wanted to make sure that the employees are right at the center. We spent so much time upfront building an employee culture. We, in fact, our first hire approximately six, eight months after we started as an individual. Focused solely on helping us build that culture.
[00:06:25] So there are just three of us and we’re investing our time and energy on the employees. We don’t quite have yet because to me in this industry if we can crack that code, I mean, we call it finding needles and needle stacks. That’s our recruiting approach. It’s not needles in haystacks. These individuals are at the top of their fields. They are the literal and figurative graybeards of the organizations that we support. And in many cases, our staff, they have more longevity in history with some of the agencies we support, then sometimes our customers themselves. So for us to find these individuals. Is a challenge and it’s something that we’re constantly working on, getting better with, and finding those who don’t quite know about us yet. But then, you know, balancing that with, are they the right fit for ACS or, you know, are they going to be a welcome fit within the culture and how can we keep them, how can we be their last employer now?
[00:07:13] Commercial: [00:07:13] Hold on for a second. Erin just talked about the benefits of early culture. Now add the benefit of having Mark Randolph on the show a few weeks ago, to talk about the benefit of culture early in the business. Now Netflix, you knew, grew to an astronomical size and they wouldn’t have gotten there without the right intention on culture and people inside the workplace. Mark, share some of the details, but I want to make sure we put this call to action in here because it’s not just Erin’s perspective. There are hundreds, if not thousands of people that believe in culture early, and I want you to make your own choice. It’s not too late, but you want to make sure that you put the right intention on culture because it is the foundation element that you build a scalable business. And back to Erin.
[00:07:56] Gene Hammett: [00:07:56] When you talk about creating something very different it makes me think of a lot of the conversations I’ve had here, which is really about this impossible question. And it’s impossible because it really is probably not the best question in the world, but as a fast-growth leader, what’s more important. Your customers, your employees.
[00:08:13] Erin Willett: [00:08:13] By employees because those employees, if they’re happy if they feel good, I, I gave every single time new hire orientation up until March of last year, when we had to kind of embrace the virtual new hire. And that’s how important that is to us. To me, I used to sit with every new hire for eight hours, bring them through our employee handbook, open up my door, my virtual door, my physical door, and say, I’m here. Just ask me, let’s make this place the best place ever. When they feel like they are working for a bigger purpose, that we’re not just the company that’s cutting their paychecks, that the missions that we are supporting are so impactful and compelling on their own. Keep those individuals happy, continue to feed their curiosity and challenges, and they will continue to shine for us than they have been for years.
[00:08:58] Gene Hammett: [00:08:58] Now, I’m going to walk you through some of the work I’ve done. And, and just have a conversation around these key pieces and that’ll be today’s interview because I wasn’t exactly sure where I’d take this, but I think we’re onto something pretty special. I study fast-growth companies, as you know, and I really look at this one big idea. People want their team members to feel like owners. They want them to feel a part of something bigger than just, a business. And that’s what you’ve described to me. The first piece behind that is, its purpose and mission. So why has that been such a central part, part of yours? Company’s strategy.
[00:09:33] Erin Willett: [00:09:33] We’ll have to say the community that we support, those national security missions, they are compelling by themselves. And we are supporting the end warfighter through intelligence support and, and through making sure that the data is moving from one place to another and giving them the information that they need. So when, when we’re sitting back, it’s pretty easy to understand why many of our employees are here because they want to be not because they have to be, we’re talking, we’ve quite a seasoned demographic. They are in their second and third careers sometimes. In many cases are we are half for a military. I’m talking 26 years in the service and we are their first civilian employer. And again, hope to be their last civilian employer.
[00:10:19] Erin Willett: [00:10:19] Oh my goodness. We try to operate as flat as possible. It’s difficult, you know, someone’s got to sign a timesheet and approve leave and all these great things, but a great example is our benefits package. We have something called discretionary time off DTO and it’s. When you need time off, you take time off. It’s all just a give and takes a week. We budget about 20 days a year. But it really is our folks that are working long days, long weeks, long months, if you will. You know, they’re able to kind of bank some of that and continue to take more. And it’s, it’s a sign of trust and empowerment. You know, we are not asking them. They’re second-guessing their request. It’s do you need that time? And you’ve. Got your stuff together as the customer is taken care of. So that’s just one way, another way is that you know, they’re, they’re all leaders in, in and of themselves. I mean, as I mentioned, it’s a very seasoned demographic, and in many cases they have run large teams, commanded large portions of the military. So. It’s just, it’s a special group of people. I think I’m, I’m rambling at this point.
[00:11:16] Gene Hammett: [00:11:16] Well, I appreciate you going through that. Another area behind this is transparency, even though you have this national security, but within the core of the company and how you guys build this culture, how would you describe your transparency?
[00:11:29] Erin Willett: [00:11:29] That’s the first thing we talk about. I always like to caution people, be careful what you ask for, but a great example is Mandy. She, she is our numbers, lady. She absolutely loves math. And, and more and more you read about our relationship. You realize that’s great. Cause I hate the numbers. But I tell folks if you want to know how we’re doing. Go ask Mandy she’ll open spreadsheets. She’ll expose the books to you. We want our employees to feel like what they are doing is truly impacting the greater good. We just had our first quarterly, all-hands meeting for this year. Talked all about that. You know, we brought up the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between.
[00:12:01] Gene Hammett: [00:12:01] I love that another area that I wanted to touch on here is around. Internal employee transformation or growth. Are you guys investing in employees so that they want, they feel like they’re, they’re getting the kind of growth that they need?
[00:12:16] Erin Willett: [00:12:16] Well, think about that season demographic, right? How do you continually challenged and keep motivated those at the top of their fields? They don’t want to go back to school. Many of them have PhDs, many advanced degrees, technical certifications. So we try to challenge them internally. We are in the. The process of rolling out a purposeful rotational program kind of similar to how the government approaches their rotational positions, where and if we take a step back and realize that we have a lot of subject matter experts our customers don’t want subject matter experts to come in and, and live forever on this program. What they want them to do is come in. Think the big thoughts. What are the issues? How do we solve them? Let’s innovate. And when we come up with what that answer is, we want to hand it over and let someone else go implement that. So what do we do with that person who developed that great strategy? Well, we’re helping them move to take what they do best for a different customer. A great example would be moving from our DIA program, defense intelligence agency over to the NGS. Support there they’re very similar organizations. And what that does is not only give our employees something, a new mission, a new challenge to support to keep them excited. But it’s also offering our customers that lessons learned and experience that they wouldn’t get a whole lot of other places. They can come and take exactly what they did in a different agency or many different agencies and help that new agency be even more efficient.
[00:13:42] Erin Willett: [00:13:42] I get to still facing them. I’ve been talking to myself, staff, and the team talking about how this is a new phase of my own career. I have never been an owner of a company that is the size before. This is a pretty big deal. Mandy and I talk about that all the time, where we’re kind of learning new things as we go. We’re learning how to trust in different ways. Everything’s been, my baby. So internally until a handful of months ago, I ran up. HR and was the HR person. I did it. So if you had a computer that broke, I fixed it for you. I am the ethics and compliance officer, the facility security. So we’re a lot of hats. Well, of course, ACS is my baby. How do you give those hats to others and let them flourish? So I’m learning how to take a little. Step back and not only just empower, but encourage this next round of leaders internally, we have a wonderful new director of HR. We welcomed a director of information security this year and a brand new I.T guru who is. Actually good at what he does like me. So I’m learning to take a step back and try to watch them just really grow in their own business. Yeah.
[00:14:52] Commercial: [00:14:52] Erin just said something. How to take a step back. Nope. One of the most powerful things you can do as a leader is sometimes it’s not just gone, go, go. But it’s taking a step back learning to say, let’s pause right here for a second. Let’s take a perspective. Let me lift my head and look and see what’s really going on here because too many times we believe that we can just put our head down and get the work done and everything will work out. We’ll catch up. But the reality is sometimes you have to slow down to speed up and you have to really be able to reflect on where you are right now. Maybe it’s making sure you’re going in the right direction. Maybe it’s making sure you have the right timing for things and the resources around you. Maybe it’s getting the right buy-in from clients or team members. You want to make sure you have the ability to slow down when you need to just go forward for the sake of moving and taking action. Doesn’t always work out the way you think it does. Just my 2 cents. Now, back to Erin.
[00:15:50] Gene Hammett: [00:15:50] I want to go into this. I think we did some research on you and you talked to Amanda on my team about, you know, financially, you know, did all of this yourself. You’re, you’re kind of bootstrapped if you will. But you also. Returned the PBP money we did.
[00:16:05] Erin Willett: [00:16:05] So we are risk-averse and frugal, small business always has been. That’s why maybe I get along so well. We had a very small closet of an office for quite a while in Fairfax city. We, we opened up our doors and we still only have one physical office space at 3000. Square feet and restaurant Virginia. We have operated lean and mean since day one. And when your owners wear all the hats, so Mandy does all the finance and the, all the strategy components and she focuses on making sure our customer deliveries are well, you know, you gotta, I dunno, just kind of, I’m not a question. I was taking that one. I’m having, a moment here, but In essence, when we took a step back and when COVID first hit, we tried to not think too hard, right. We plan for the worst. We hope for the best. And we did come in somewhere in between. We sat with our employees and the first thing we did was said, we have you, we’ve got you. And we were able to do that because of all of ours. Frugal decision points up to that point. Again, no external investment. To this point, we have a line of credit that we use now and then but really haven’t touched it for a while. So internally, we basically reallocated reprioritized our internal R and D money that we were planning to use for 2020 and said, Nope, we’d rather our own staff help us build a better company. So we developed an internal job board where if our employees raised their hand and said, I’m not comfortable going back into the office and say, for example, they didn’t have billable work with the customer. So there wasn’t enough unclassified work for them to do from home. We wanted to still support them.
[00:17:30] So what they would do is they would go out to this job board and its kind of like a virtual bulletin board. You pull off the job, you’re good at whether it’s helping on it help desk helping Erin write policies, helping Mandy with finances, you know? And so. They were able to roll up their sleeves. And to that point, kind of feel a little ownership and we did not have to lay off one individual due to COVID at all. And we were able, we did receive, we got approved for RPP loan on April 5th of 2020. Our finance team is amazing. She has to be with my sister. She, the application was done and they went through this great process of identifying our risk level. And we had such documentation in place that we feel very good about the loans. But we didn’t have to use it. And we were able to return it a handful of months. So it was a $1.5 million loan that we were able to fully repay.
[00:18:16] Gene Hammett: [00:18:16] Really interesting. I haven’t heard of anyone that’s returned the money. I know you’re probably not the only one out there. But a lot of companies that I’ve talked to said, you know, just wasn’t sure what it would be like. And I’m assuming you weather the storm and it actually has been. Has it been something that’s kind of, I know you’re proud of it, but is it something that the whole company’s product?
[00:18:33] Erin Willett: [00:18:33] Yeah, I don’t think so. We’re we keep became so much more close-knit through this experience. It’s not just the loan itself, but I truly believe our employees felt taken care of. They knew that we tell them the good, the bad, the ugly, and we are very transparent. We were very candid with our staff. I even back from the first program that we were at risk of losing when we sat with them and we said, here there’s beer. And then there are donuts. Pick one and we’ll help you with your resume. You know, we’re very this whole experience has brought us closer, you know, as a company where 99% of our workforce is out supporting a different customer, they relate well to that customer and they show up in a different environment. It’s really hard to feel close-knit. And that’s what we struggle with within this community. COVID dare. I’m never going to use the word positive of COVID cause that’s just not what I’m trying to get to, but there have been silver linings. It has been easier to access a lot of my staff. We are more engaged internally and connected through teams and slack and all these great mechanisms. Mandy and her team created this thing called connect ACS, which is a virtual race across the country. We had teams and different goodie bags or boxes had 2020 was a year of the boxes. So just a whole bunch of silver linings that came out of a really bad situation and allowed us to really Excel. I will say, as a side note this entire experience has made Mandy and I really recommit to ACS. When we first started it we said maybe five to 10 years. We didn’t quite know what our plans were. And we are celebrating our eighth year of partnership this year. So you can tell where we are in that timeline and when COVID hit between the social unrest, CRE injustices out there Mandy and I realized that.
[00:20:12] We do have a platform. And even though it’s a small platform, it’s a platform and we are excited to be able to use that. We developed a day of advocacy is a great example of one payday of leave for every employee of the company. It used to be a day of volunteerism, but with all that happened last year, we said, you know what? We want to give you a day. To go protest. If you want to, to, to have a voice to do what it is that you feel good about and makes you so back to all the little things that we try to do to, to, to really bring us closer together. And I, I truly think the pandemic kind of accelerated a little of that.
[00:20:45] Gene Hammett: [00:20:45] Want to go one more place with you on this. And I have no idea if you would even be able to think of something off the cuff, but what do you feel like you guys do differently in your leadership? That has made you guys successful.
[00:20:56] Erin Willett: [00:20:56] We’re authentic. I mean, it’s, it’s down to we, we roll it. Nancy. A nice day is another day in our seven-day work week. We have never asked our staff to do anything that we won’t do as a great example, Mandy right now is 25% billable to an NGA customer as our program manager. And she’s doing such a great job. I’m afraid I’m never going to get her back, but. We have through blood, sweat, and tears just kind of made things happen. And, and I think it’s that authenticity that resonates with the folks. We have very low attrition, very low turnover. When people join us even down to the interview, once they find us and interview them, they typically wanted to join us yesterday. Which is fantastic, but I’m just excited to share what we have. To offer to the world. You know, we’ve got a great team, and Mandy and I are just most focused right now. And that turning point, you mentioned earlier on identifying what those five things are that make us extra special and that her and my jobs are going to turn into protecting those until we die. Making sure that whatever we do, however, regrow that at least our staff is being taken care of. And we truly are looking back to our roots.
[00:22:02] Gene Hammett: [00:22:02] I’ve got a prediction here that, because of the way you guys think about leadership and culture, and you started so early on this, that you’re going to be okay, you’re going to make it through this.
[00:22:10] Erin Willett: [00:22:10] I think we’re doing a pretty good job. I’m enjoying it. And we’re having fun. I mean, Mandy and I are, we got together. We said we’ll do this until we stop having fun. And we have fun every day. Some things I wake up and I say, I love to hate my job. But I am. Thankful that I had it. I mean, it’s stressful to go to bed every night, feeling like every single person in your company relies on you for that paycheck and to put food on the table and things, but that’s also what motivates me. We are, we are stronger together. We’re making a major impact. That’s positive on our national security and we’ve got such an awesome team. That’s doing it.
[00:22:45] Gene Hammett: [00:22:45] Well, I want to wrap up a little bit of this conversation because what we talked about was truly about authentic leadership. And if you want to grow a team where there feel connected, there’s meaning in what they do, then you’ve got to be very intentional about that. It’s not just being bag and chairs and a beer and, and even, you know, having little zoom meetings where people have happy hours, it truly is being intentional about. Being transparent, being open, where you need to be, creating a space where people want to join you. And like Erin talked about the smartest people in your industry. You’ve got to be very intentional about that as a culture. And if you are that kind of leader, then you will create the space to grow. My job is to help leaders get really clear about what those missing gaps are and help them really keep moving and evolving as leaders. Do you have any questions about what that means for you? Make sure to check out some of the free resources at genehammett.com. If you want to continue growing as a leader, I’d love to have a conversation with you to talk about what is that cap. Where you are now to where you want to be. When you think about growth and culture, take up Growth Think Tank as always do the courage. 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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