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Jim Vranicar: “Embrace Vulnerability”

Beyond our corporate planned activities, our leadership team has been amazed and very impressed with the organic ways our staff has adapted to working from home. We’ve had teams schedule virtual show-and-tells, birthday celebration happy hours, a virtual poker league, a Netflix watch party, etc., all in the first three weeks of the stay-at-home orders. […]

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Beyond our corporate planned activities, our leadership team has been amazed and very impressed with the organic ways our staff has adapted to working from home. We’ve had teams schedule virtual show-and-tells, birthday celebration happy hours, a virtual poker league, a Netflix watch party, etc., all in the first three weeks of the stay-at-home orders.

If we hadn’t worked to build such a strong culture or if our employees didn’t like their jobs or each other, you wouldn’t see these organic shows of positive, creative ways to stay connected to each other during the health crisis of our collective lifetimes.


As a part of our series about “How business leaders can create a fantastic work environment”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Vranicar, COO of Signal Theory (ST), a brand development, marketing, and design firm in Kansas City, MO, and Wichita, KS. Signal Theory serves brands such as SONIC America’s Drive-in, Cargill Protein, Merck Animal Health, John Deere, AMC Dine-In and authors FoodThink, a multi-year longitudinal study that quantifies American’s habits and opinions about what they choose to eat and why.

In 2015, ST began looking at their employee engagement metrics only to realize their employees were not very engaged or satisfied. Staff turnover was 30% and their employee engagement vs the U.S. Gallup Average was in the 35th percentile. In 2016 ST chose to make “Connection” a priority. Their “People” became one of their strategic imperatives and they created an “Intentional People Plan” to ensure their 360 degree included training and measured new behaviors from managers and staff. In 2018, ST’s Employee Engagement was in the 96th percentile vs. the U.S. Gallup Average, they saw revenue growth and was Top-Scoring AMIN Agency in Employee Satisfaction.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It is safe to say that I had a very unorthodox path to leading HR and Ops for Signal Theory. For the first 20+ years of my career, I was in media planning roles with three different advertising agencies. I started at Signal Theory in 2007 as the firm’s Media Director and was in that role until 2017.

In 2017, after having previously helped manage some HR and Operations projects related to staff recruitment and training, I was given the opportunity to become Chief Operating Officer. My primary responsibilities include leading all HR and Operations initiatives. Right off the bat, the operations projects seemed mostly second nature to me, but I really had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable in getting my arms around the HR side of my new role.

So, I dove in and got as smart as I could as fast as I could. I’m still learning, but I embraced the job and the nuances and art of the HR lead.

Something I noticed immediately from being around many classically trained HR professionals is just how set in their ways many of them were. A majority tended to follow classic HR rules and procedures, of which I had little context or experience with. Their inclination was to say no to interesting benefits offerings or employee training ideas. I like to think that my natural ability to connect with people combined with my lack of preconceived notions for how things are supposed to be done in HR has given me a fresh perspective on what HR offerings we can bring to the table to enhance the Signal Theory culture and employee experience.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

By far, the most interesting part of my journey after becoming COO has been our ongoing efforts to create better connections between employees and supervisors toward the ultimate goal of increasing employee engagement and reducing employee turnover.

The first two phases toward achieving this goal that I helped to implement were the introduction of the Signal Theory “People Plan Committee” in 2016 and 2017 and our work to implement what we called the “Signal Theory Intentional People Plan,” which was one of our four strategic imperatives in 2018 and 2019. Our defined mission during those years was to “create connections between people, their supervisor and their next best step.”

We put a strong emphasis on this after we saw the results of Signal Theory’s initial deployment of the Gallup Employee Engagement Survey in 2015. We were disappointed to learn that our employee engagement ranked in just the 35th percentile as compared to all companies who conduct the survey. Honestly, this was a surprise to us. We thought things were OK.

They weren’t.

We knew then and there that we needed fundamental changes in how we were nurturing our culture. So we embarked on a significant program to ensure our employees felt connected and empowered. I go into more detail about how we went about this below; however, it is important to note right now that we didn’t accept those numbers. We acted immediately to do something about them.

All our hard work has paid off. In just four years, we improved our Gallup engagement scores dramatically. We now rank in the 94th percentile. We have also reduced staff turnover significantly and have been consistently below the 30 percent U.S. advertising agency average turnover rate.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes! The HR/Ops team is working hard to implement a phase three toward our focus on people and building stronger personal connections.

After seeing that ~60 percentile rank jump in employee engagement (35th percentile to 94th percentile) between 2015 to 2019, we want to continue the momentum by addressing career-pathing, which employee surveys tell us is something we can improve on.

So to enhance things in 2020, we are rolling out a new HR initiative called “Feedback Culture.” We want to be intentional about feedback being more than a once or twice per year event. Instead, we want feedback to be a part of the fabric of Signal Theory. We started by developing a purpose statement for the “Feedback Culture” initiative that reads “We will create a Feedback Culture to generate more meaningful conversations that provide timely, actionable and job-specific information that employees can use to enhance their performance, create a better career path and increase their connectedness.”

This initiative will help our employees better understand how they are performing functionally and more important, help better guide their career paths. We will do this with an enhanced performance evaluation process tied to a new, easy-to-use HR platform that managers and employees can use to increase their connection to each other (Transcend Engagement http://transcendengagement.com/).

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

I think it comes down to what Patrick Lencioni shared in his 2015 book The Truth About Employee Engagement. Lencioni argues that there are three factors that cause job misery which include 1) anonymity, 2) irrelevance and 3) immeasurement. Any employee who is dealing with just one of these factors is not going to be happy in their job. If they’re dealing with two or all three of them, they’re going to be miserable.

When we developed Signal Theory’s cross-functional People Plan Committee in 2016, we used Lencioni’s above job misery model as our basis for how we could reduce all three of these job misery factors at our firm. This required us to enact some much-needed introspection for how we could make our employees feel more valued and connected.

I believe one other major reason for an unhappy U.S. workforce is something Forbes pointed out in their article — a lack of management training. When companies don’t invest in training their managers on how to be connected to the employees they manage, including how to have candid conversations, it’s no wonder that so many people are disengaged and unhappy.

Realizing this, Signal Theory has put a major emphasis on manager training over the last three years. We invested in Jenne Fromm (http://www.jennefromm.com/), an outside consultant, to help us create a comprehensive “Connected Manager Training Program.” The program included eight full days per year of management training for all Signal Theory managers on how to be more connected to the people they supervise as well as creating an online “Connected Manager’s Toolkit.” This online toolkit houses documents managers can use to increase connection with employees across the entire employee life cycle from interviewing to onboarding to ongoing management to performance evaluations all the way to an employee’s exit.

This wasn’t cheap, and it pulled key people away from our clients for a set amount of time. In the end, however, we knew that both our people and our clients would benefit greatly from the effort.

Jenne Fromm:

Signal Theory Spotlight — Bridget, a Signal Theory employee recently handed out this “Spotlight” that References the Connected Manager Program

Signal Theory Connected Manager’s Online Toolkit

Signal Theory Connected Manager’s Online Toolkit— Managing Section

Since we began putting emphasis on lessening the factors of job misery and providing training on how to be more connected to each other, our Gallup Employee Engagement Survey scores have risen dramatically while our staff turnover has reduced by 27 percentage points.

Given the disruptions caused because of the COVID-19 health crisis, how has your company culture helped Signal Theory navigate through this unprecedented time of stay-at-home orders, etc.?

It has been said that a strong company culture can get organizations through difficult times. As best-selling author Brigette Hyacinth (https://www.linkedin.com/in/brigettehyacinth/) put it in a recent LinkedIn article about how companies should treat their employees during this crisis “Any effort a company is putting to keep their staff will go a long way in sustaining the culture and brand. Sadly, many leaders don’t care nor do they wish to care because they think caring is detrimental to the bottom line. These rough times are a true test of a company’s corporate culture and values, especially those who say they ‘value people’ or ‘put people first.’”

About a year ago, we shared with our staff some formally revised values that we’ve been reinforcing at every turn. Those company values include curiosity, courage, optimism, giving a damn and being pure of heart. Obviously, in this time, we have leaned hard into those values as we’ve discussed what’s happening with our business. Practically, we’ve also done things such as virtual all-staff Friday morning meetings, virtual yoga classes and changing our normal Friday beer :30s into e-beer :30 celebrations. We have also worked with Jenne Fromm to provide some remote live coaching to help our staff navigate this new world we find ourselves in.

Beyond our corporate planned activities, our leadership team has been amazed and very impressed with the organic ways our staff has adapted to working from home. We’ve had teams schedule virtual show-and-tells, birthday celebration happy hours, a virtual poker league, a Netflix watch party, etc., all in the first three weeks of the stay-at-home orders.

If we hadn’t worked to build such a strong culture or if our employees didn’t like their jobs or each other, you wouldn’t see these organic shows of positive, creative ways to stay connected to each other during the health crisis of our collective lifetimes.

Virtual All-Staff Friday Morning Meeting:

Virtual Team Show and Tell:

Virtual Netflix Watch Party:

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

In our experience, an unhappy workforce is a disengaged workforce. And when employees are disengaged, all areas of productivity are negatively impacted.

Our company profit history would bear this out.

In 2015, according to our Gallup Engagement survey results, only 29% of our employees were actively engaged, which put us in just the 35th percentile rank of all Gallup survey participants. Sadly, that year our profitability dropped 12% from the year prior. Our revenues also decreased by almost 300,000 dollars.

Since we began putting more emphasis on improving employee engagement through employee and manager training, our percentage of actively engaged employees has increased to 67% (94th percentile rank). Our average profitability increase during those subsequent years is +26%. Productivity also improved as measured by improvements in our client survey net promoter scores.

Common sense and our firm’s improved results show that when you improve the happiness of your workforce, you increase the bottom line of your organization.

Research by Gallup also bears this out. Their research shows that companies with the highest employee engagement show 21% higher levels of profitability.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

  1. Embrace Vulnerability — Don’t be afraid to show vulnerability to your staff. We’re all human and we all struggle. Company leaders are not immune to this. One of the things I love most about the Signal Theory culture is our collective ability to be vulnerable, a rare and positive trait in the advertising agency industry. It’s OK to admit as a company leader that you don’t have all the answers. It benefits organizations when they have a “beta” mindset in which leadership can say to their employees, “We’re not sure this is going to work, but let’s try it for a few weeks and if it isn’t what we hoped for, we’ll adjust on the fly.” Signal Theory values vulnerability so much that we hold our managers accountable to it. Two times per year, we employ a 360-degree Connected Manager Performance Evaluation to measure how connected managers are to their employees. A part of this survey measures managers’ vulnerability. I think being vulnerable as leaders is one of the reasons we’ve increased our employee engagement scores so significantly. Being vulnerable shows that you are human, increases trust and builds deeper connections. Employees like to know that real people are running a company. People who will have their back.
  2. Emphasize Management Training — A recent CareerBuilder.com survey showed that 58% of managers reported receiving no management training. Up until about five years ago, Signal Theory did very little management training. Since then, we have put major financial and time resources toward training managers on how to be better connected to those they supervise. This training, led by Jenne Fromm, consists of courses like “Understanding the Roadblocks of Connection,” “Building your Connection Foundation” and “Honing your Ability to Coach.” In 2018, all 50+ managers were required to be a part of these courses which consisted of eight full days of training sessions. It paid off. Our Gallup engagement scores are in the 90+ percentile rank, and our firm has held the top score in an employee satisfaction survey conducted across more than 20 U.S. advertising agencies for two years running.
  3. Give Your Employees a Seat at the Table — As a firm that believes in vulnerability, we as leaders know that we don’t have all the answers. That is why we give our employees a seat at the table. Simply put, we use our non-leadership employees to help us figure stuff out. We created a “People Plan Committee” consisting of several employees to strive to create better connections between all our staff. We have a “Culture Club Committee” in each office to help ensure we remain a great place to work. A group of our female employees created an awesome organization called “Babes Helping Babes,” which exists to empower women, challenge norms and create meaningful change in our communities. In 2019, we started a cross-office/cross-discipline “Diversity & Inclusion Committee” at the urging of our employees to help us become more diverse in our employee recruitment and to educate our staff on ways to get beyond hidden biases which may be clouding their world view. These are all examples of giving employees a seat at the table. We wouldn’t have grown our revenues by 23% over the last three years without the contributions of our employees to make us better.
  4. Prioritize Balance — The pace and amount of sheer work that is required to service clients in an omni-channel marketing world can lead to long hours and a lack of work/life balance for those of us in the advertising industry. Signal Theory is certainly not immune to these challenges. I’ve noticed over my more than 20-year agency career that working long hours is often either overtly or subconsciously coveted by ad agency leaders as a badge of honor. I’ve witnessed my friends who are in the ad agency business and many ad agency principals brag about how many hours they and/or their teams work. While I wouldn’t describe working at Signal Theory as “banker’s hours,” our Co-CEO Ali Mahaffy makes it a priority to ensure that all employees work toward a sense of balance. Whether that be in the number of hours our staff works or the benefits we offer our employees such as wellness expense reimbursements or offering time and space for onsite yoga and HIIT classes. As a working mom, Ali also sees the importance of not missing her kids’ school or sports events. She does a great job of living by example and asking others to do the same for their families. I often see Ali express this balance theme relative to the number of hours our staff works. When reviewing monthly profitability and hours reports by team, she will often say things like, “The account managers on Team X worked a lot of hours last month. Do we need to get them some staffing help or help them re-prioritize their workload?” Additionally, Signal Theory puts a financial outlay in prioritizing balance. In 2019, we instituted a 4-week paid sabbatical program for employees who have worked at the firm for eight consecutive years. On top of that, we will reimburse employees up to 750 dollars if they leave the U.S. during their sabbatical to experience other cultures. To our knowledge, we are the only advertising agency in our geographical region to offer a sabbatical program. It is great to have a leader like Ali who truly cares about her employees being in proper balance.
  5. Remain in a Relentless State of Beta — A few years ago, our Co-CEO John January introduced the firm to the concept of “remaining in a relentless state of beta.” It was a way to help Signal Theory staff think about change in a world where marketing technology is constantly evolving. He likes to cite this Seth Goden quote: “The easiest thing is to react. The second easiest thing is to respond. But the hardest thing is to initiate.” Being in a constant state of beta means striving to adapt, iterate and innovate quickly. With that philosophy, both John and Ali pushed our organization to be willing to experiment and even be willing to fail in the name of initiating something bold. You really do have to be OK with failure. Not every bold idea works. But every bold idea teaches you something. And as a leadership team, we know that it is through failure that people often find their biggest form of personal and professional growth. This way of thinking that John and Ali have fostered in our people has helped lead Signal Theory to overall revenue growth of +22% since they became Co-CEOs in 2015.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture.” What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

For starters, we have to change the way we think about culture. For years, businesses — especially creative businesses like ours — have thought of “good culture” as consisting of unconventional perks like a pool table in the reception area, beer on tap and free lunches. In reality, culture is just a word that describes the personality of an organization that dictates how employees interact with each other. While a pool table and pizza parties are nice, they cannot replace meaningful interactions and significant connections.

As a society, we need to stop thinking that business starts and ends at the door of the office. We need to build systems and change thinking around what matters most — both in and out of the building. Once we focus more on connections and realize that these connections matter more to people than anything else, we can tear down the traditional ideas of what makes a good workplace and realize that “good culture” is a human issue, not just a business one.

Caring most about how we interact with each other — both inside and outside the office — and intentionally working to make those interactions truthful, timely, open, compassionate and non-defensive, is still a radical idea for most businesses.

I’m reminded of a quote from the Harvard Business Review’s study of company culture:“It is far more common for leaders seeking to build high-performing organizations to be confounded by culture. Indeed, many either let it go unmanaged or relegate it to the HR function, where it becomes a secondary concern for the business. They may lay out detailed, thoughtful plans for strategy and execution, but because they don’t understand culture’s power and dynamics, their plans go off the rails. As someone once said, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’” — “The Culture Factor” January-February 2018 issue Harvard Business Review)

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

My goal is to be a consultative, supportive and inclusive leader. As a manager, I strive to be supportive and like to help guide employees to find the answers on their own versus being overbearing and giving them what I think the exact answers should be. I also take pride in delivering work on time and accurately, and expect the same from those who report to me.

One thing I hate to see in leaders is when they use “I” language to describe their accomplishments. In almost every business situation, no single person accomplishes anything on their own. They had help from peers, supervisors and employees who work for them.

Since I know this to be the case, I prefer “we” language when describing accomplishments. For example, there is no way Signal Theory would have made so much progress on improving our employee engagement without the support and commitment of a lot of people, including our Co-CEOs, Jenne Fromm, our incredible HR team, all the managers who went through connected manager training and all the employees who continued to run the business while we were in day-long training sessions. I have little patience for leaders who consistently say “I did this” or “I managed that.” In the end, we did it together, buddy.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Two people come to mind. Jenne Fromm, our outside employee training consultant and Tony Robinson, Signal Theory’s CFO.

I have definitely been blessed to have worked with Jenne Fromm, especially as I transitioned into my COO role.

Jenne and I have known each other for over 20 years, having worked at another ad agency in the mid-to-late 1990s. She has served as a life coach, motivational speaker, leadership consultant and workforce trainer in the areas of emotional intelligence, goal setting and management training for the last 25 years. About eight years ago, when we really began noticing that our employees needed some functional training around things like presentation skills and conflict resolution, I recommended that we invest in Jenne as a consultant to train our staff.

It was the best suggestion I’ve ever made while working at Signal Theory.

Since then, Jenne’s consulting role at Signal Theory has grown. She helped us author our Connected Manager initiative and served as our primary resource for management training over the last two years. Our employees see her as a key contributor for ensuring our culture continues to improve. I would recommend Jenne to any company that truly wants to improve their culture.

Beyond that, Jenne has been invaluable to me as I took on the challenge of leading all HR and Operations at our firm. Jenne believes in me, challenges me and always has my best interests at heart. My transition to an HR role 20+ years into my career would not have been this successful without her partnership, wisdom and guidance.

I am also very grateful for our CFO, Tony Robinson. Tony has been a part of HR and Operations his entire career and understands the unique challenges that HR presents in an ad agency setting. He has been invaluable to me as I continue to learn the ins and outs of the HR discipline. Whenever I need a doublecheck as to compliance or policy issues, Tony is always there, patiently answering my questions and offering thoughtful points of view that keep me on the right path.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Signal Theory’s stated purpose for being reads “We connect people to joy, comfort and meaning in an ever-changing world.” Personally, I try to bring that to life with everyday interactions. I make a deliberate effort to be objective and sensitive, to hear all sides of an issue before making a decision, to give everyone a voice and to stand up for others.

More specifically, I am grateful that I’ve always seen the importance of giving back or giving forward in any way I could.

Following are two examples.

My wife and I regularly donate money to charities that are important to us, charities we believe can bring more goodness to the world, including Water.org (https://water.org/), MOCSA (https://www.mocsa.org/) and the Innocence Project (https://www.innocenceproject.org/.

In 2013, I donated my kidney to my oldest brother. He was 63 at the time and was suffering from kidney disease. As the youngest of seven children, I figured my kidney was in as good of shape as anyone else’s in my family so why not me? Despite suffering from complications that took about a year to fully recover from, I was grateful for the chance to help him out because it allowed me to be a good example for my son and my younger nephews and nieces. That, and it was a way to honor all the sacrifices our parents made while raising their seven children.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have to credit my father by going with a really simple life lesson he often quoted, “Work your plan and plan your work.” My father was very planful in his daily life and I inherited this trait from him. I am a consummate list maker who tries to tackle the most difficult projects first, always challenging myself to get things done on time, with a high degree of quality and without much waste.

This concept has been very instrumental in helping me transition to Signal Theory’s COO and has helped me be successful in most areas of my life.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Considering that a vast majority of us have a job that occupies at least one-third of our waking hours, I’d love to see our society become better at connecting with employees. I’ve seen what improving connection has done for Signal Theory over the last four years and I imagine society would be in a happier, more connected place if other companies put as much effort into improving connection as we have.

I’ve been unhappy in a job before. Haven’t we all? It is not a good place to be as being unhappy at work affects not only how you feel at work, but every other aspect of your life. Unhappy employees breed unhappy families or significant others and unhappy children. The fog of being unhappy in a job permeates every aspect of your life and it affects a majority of the people you come in contact with.

Imagine a world where all employees are treated with more respect, where vulnerability is seen as a strength rather than a weakness, where employees feel like their boss has their back? If we could get there, I think society would be in a much better place.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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