The WP Minute+

In this episode, Matt chats with James, an industry veteran in WordPress, about his new initiative TeamWP. They delve into James' experiences and insights, revealing the need for a more robust approach to team-building and culture within WordPress businesses.

James introduces TeamWP, a service aimed at fostering healthier and more productive work environments within these businesses. He discusses how they aid in obtaining candid feedback from employees, maintaining confidentiality, and promoting a psychologically safe space for open communication.

James shares his philosophy on company culture, underscoring the importance of balancing hard work with celebration and relaxation to avoid burnout. He also highlights some of the models and principles that he's developed over 15 years in the industry, including the Open Team framework and an employee engagement survey.

This engaging discussion ends with James emphasizing that his approach is interactive and guided, striving for sustainable improvement over quick fixes.

Important links
★ Support this podcast ★

What is The WP Minute+?

For long-form interviews, news, and commentary about the WordPress ecosystem. This is the companion show to The WP Minute, your favorite 5-minutes of WordPress news every week.

[00:00:00]

[00:00:00] James: It's fun to say currently in between jobs. and, but really focusing my energy, I don't know. I, I'm, I'm, I like to work, I like to do things. I like to be productive and, I guess I could have sat back and just spent, you know, the 20 to 30 minutes a day going through LinkedIn job. opportunities and, and applied for things, but, oh, that just didn't sit right with me.

[00:00:24] And there's only so many Korean dramas I can watch during the day. So, I, I had. You know, at working at Asia, I launched, this concept called Team w p, and it came out of, you know, that storied history that you talked about, right? Having worked with Envato and Rocket Genius and Stellar and other companies, in between, just about the concept of like team and culture.

[00:00:50] Like how do we do team as WordPress companies? How do we do culture as WordPress companies? Especially now, you know, you look at. WordPress being 20 years old this year we're growing up. Those of us that started when we were 20 are now 40. Right. And, if we've had companies that long. we've, we've maybe got really good at building products, but I wonder if we've been able to devote as much energy and time and effort into building teams and building companies.

[00:01:21] So, team WP came out of my, my own experiences, my observations, my passion for leadership, and it's now. Now the thing that I'm working on full-time, which is a lot of fun and the conversations I'm having with, plugin company owners and hosting companies has just been, brilliant theme owners too, so that's awesome.

[00:01:42] Matt: the I'll give you my unfiltered feedback when I immediately see it. I think this is amazing one, but two, this is a mature product. This is for mature businesses, let's say. And without getting any hate mail in my inbox, there's a lot of businesses in the WordPress space that come to mind immediately who are not even at that level yet.

[00:02:04] Like, my God, it's one or two people, maybe a half a dozen people, but they're not really ready. For this kind of experience, what, two-part question. One, who's your target customer? in our little corner of the web? and what should they expect, when they engage with you?

[00:02:23] James: Oh, that's great questions. And I think, you know, we're moving into an era where whether you're three people, five people, 30 people, a hundred people, your team cares about the everyday experience that they have when they are picking the company that they're going to work for. And we, as just employers in general, have to get better.

[00:02:49] At creating environments that people wanna work in. People have choice now, right? Like it's, it's super aggressive out there to hire and, and keep talent. [00:03:00] and yeah, so that's, I, you know, who, who is this for? Mature companies, I think. yes. At the the paid end. I guess if you could say like, if you're gonna engage me specifically for some of the targeted services that team WP is gonna be offering.

[00:03:18] But we are trying to make this the conversation accessible to everyone. So like anyone, regardless of the size of your team or your company, can participate in the team experience index. The, you know, employee engagement benchmark, survey that we're, we're trying to get out there and what that is doing, I hope, if nothing else is helping business owners at any stage.

[00:03:43] Understand the types of questions that they could be and maybe should be asking about the way that they operate. you know, whether it's things like do your team even know what your mission is or what your purpose is as a company? do they feel confident in the products and services that you're offering?

[00:04:00] How do they feel about whether they're gonna be around in the next two years? These are questions maybe. Leaders in smaller companies are afraid to ask because they're not sure of what to do with the answers. but if you create a neutral third party place for them, for, for teams to voice those opinions or, or those feelings, it takes maybe a little bit of the pressure off of smaller companies that aren't as able to focus as much effort and resources onto dealing with those challenges to at least understand where they, where they fit and where they stand.

[00:04:33] It is a very much a hands-on because this, a lot of this stuff is new to companies in WordPress. They don't have, you know, the reality is, is. Because of the distributed nature of WordPress and WordPress teams. And we have a lot of small companies, right in that five to 10 or 10 to 30, space.

[00:04:52] And I think that for companies in that space, having a dedicated HR person or a dedicated people and culture team and culture, focus is not something they have capacity for. So for companies that are sort of in that 15 to 30 range and they're just starting to think about this and maybe turnover is becoming something that matters and is more impactful to them, you know, having a fractional team and culture person come alongside and just ask these questions and build in some systems can be really helpful without necessarily needing to engage someone full-time.

[00:05:27] and I think as well some of the, the systems and experiences and learnings that I've had from working with teams across the spectrum of small, medium, and large, gives me some, some tools and insights to be able to share. And that's really what we're doing with the, the. The set of things. So, you know, we've got, what I call team sync toolkit, which is really basic.

[00:05:48] Any team at any size, can begin to implement, right? Like team norms, team charter ways of working. Those are very, straightforward and they're not necessarily things you need to pay for, right? We'll give [00:06:00] them away for free. but if you want guided or facilitated experiences, that's maybe where we can come in, come alongside and help.

[00:06:06] And then, the, the experience overall Yeah. Is very much like we talk about strategy. Like what are your outcomes? What are, what are the reasons why, You are looking to run an employee engagement survey, for example, what we call, the open team culture compass. you know, like, let's, let's get a sense of what it is that you're maybe worried about.

[00:06:25] Maybe you've gone through a round of restructuring and you wanna just get a sense of where people are at. That's actually a really good time. Most people think, Hey, don't ask how your people are feeling, cuz it's gonna come back really negative after a restructure or a layoff round. But that's actually the best time to do it because you know why.

[00:06:44] They're feeling the way that they're feeling and rather than it being, you know, like a mystery that you have to solve, you sort of know that elephant in the room and can then go, okay, once we take that out, are there things that we can maybe do in action that would help, people out? And so we help companies do that.

[00:07:00] So we'll unpack things with them. I've, I've created something called the Open Team framework, which is a set of eight principles that, you know, we measure team and culture around, and our surveying reflects that. Even the, the team experience index reflects a little bit of that, and it's really interesting.

[00:07:22] I never thought I'd be that guy to create like a leadership model or a culture model. and it's based on my own experiences, 15 years. It's based on, you know, what we love and reflect in the WordPress ecosystem as well around, you know, inclusion, openness, collaboration, and bring some of that in, to, to measure and, and help teams get a sense of where they're at and then move forward and we build action plans and strategies around all that.

[00:07:46] So, Yeah, I'd love to say it was like, set it in, forget it, where you can just like, click a button, you get into a portal, away you go, and it's done. But it's very much guided and I think that that's actually better for companies if, if they're looking to move the needle on people and culture.

[00:08:03] Matt: I'm always curious about this. The truth factor, right? Somebody asks, you know, the boss asks, how's everyone doing? Everyone's, oh, it's great, right? Like, no one is saying, you know, anything Based on your experience and, you know, the, the years you've had, with, with all of these standout brands in the, in the space, do you have a particular way of like getting real truthful or open?

[00:08:28] Is there. some kind of scientific framework. You can tell I'm not an HR person, that that actually breaks through and like we, we throw this softball question out where, Hey, how's your day? And everyone says, fine. But then there's this, other question in the back end that really opens up the truth of something.

[00:08:46] James: Oh,

[00:08:47] Matt: is that the, that's the struggle.

[00:08:49] James: Well, that, that is why you would engage with some, a team like, team WP because, you're not gonna get honesty necessarily all the time, right. [00:09:00] It, it takes an intense level of trust and intense le level of psychological safety. for somebody who's an individual contributor, the lowest rung on the ladder, if you will, or the hierarchy to be able to tell.

[00:09:15] A senior leader, how they really feel. That's why we have hidden c e O TV shows where they actually have to pretend to be an individual employee and go into the actual, you know, like daily life of employees to get to the truth because the The intimidation factor of being open and honest is there, and you're more likely to share truth with your colleague, right, than you are with your, your manager or your senior leader.

[00:09:41] So we help facilitate that by saying, you don't get to see individual responses. You are never going to see what so-and-so said. About working for you. We are going to take their response. And the other response is we're gonna aggregate all that information. And if they are providing specific feedback, we are gonna sanitize that.

[00:10:03] So you are getting the actionable insight out of it, not necessarily the specific words to protect the anonymity and confidentiality. And when you can do that, when you can protect the anonymity and confidentiality of employees, that is where you get that honesty and that feedback. And, you know, you can take steps to work toward trust and safety, right?

[00:10:23] Like, if those are really big issues and those come through on the surveys, right? That, that people just don't feel comfortable share talking about what's really important, what really matters, then we can actually help, leaders train and learn how to do that better. So at least there aren't as many big surprises on a survey.

[00:10:41] Matt: Yeah, I wanna just talk about, culture for a moment. How. Even a small team can define culture or maybe even strive for culture, whatever that means to them. And obviously whatever that that means to you as, as you define it. You know, when I think back to running my agency, in, in, in the heyday of the agency, you know, there were five, six of us.

[00:11:07] Maybe a couple other part-timers. And really the culture was, shared victory in surviving, right? in agency world, you know, you're, you're only as good as your last project and you're just one project away from bankruptcy in, in most cases, right? You're just waiting for that stuff as you build it up.

[00:11:24] Of course, I mean, you know, a mature agency has a lot of other, should have, mixed income or whatever. But the point is those, you know, year 2, 3, 4, Even five, like you are still growing, getting to that next client, getting another team member. And really your culture is, Hey, let's all just survive. Let's get this next paycheck.

[00:11:44] And then like you try to balance it as an agency owner myself, and, you know, I don't know. I could have been totally wrong. It's the only culture set is, do we all get along? do we all do good work together? are we servicing the clients we wanna serve? And saying no to the bad [00:12:00] ones so that we're not stressed out.

[00:12:02] work from anywhere, you know, play ping pong in the afternoon, and let's just get the job done by the milestone in the contract. That was culture for me and how I looked at it as a immature business. Your thoughts, no direct question there, but your thoughts on setting culture in, let's say a typical WordPress agency environment or plug-in environment?

[00:12:25] Cuz I feel like that's the majority of us.

[00:12:27] James: Yeah. Survivor die, right? Like that's kind of, kind of where it's at. I look at it,a little bit differently as you might, you might expect, but I, not, not so much. Like I get that look that, you know, you've got to ultimately, Ultimately culture and team is all about for, from a business point of view, is all about delivering great results and doing it efficiently, doing it effectively.

[00:12:55] And so when we talk about agencies and surviving and, and, and getting through it, I would say that culture in that situation is a bit more okay. We need to create a high performing team. We need to make sure that we talk together well. when it comes to milestones, right? Like that we are, you know, celebrating those wins, we're recognizing the work that people are doing.

[00:13:23] you know, like, I used to work for a salesman in the uk. and he would say, work hard, play hard, right? So you work really hard and you hustle through your 40 hours in, in the work week, let's say, or 60, 60 to 80 hours if you're the agency owner. and, but then you play hard as well and you celebrate those victories.

[00:13:42] And I think. Regardless of where you're at, if you push everyone always, and it's always survive, survive, survive. That's the road to burnout, right? That's the road to destruction. and, and so yes, you have to be focused on output, especially in those early years. But at some point as a leader, you've gotta figure out how to transition the outcomes, right?

[00:14:06] And get your team to a place where they're not. Where you might be feeling it as the owner right around the stress of meeting payroll or the stress of, of, all of those kinds of things. But your team feels, you know, that there's breathing space, that there's victory, that there's momentum, there's, there's things that are carrying them forward. You're, it's never too early to start talking about career progression and how you celebrate your team getting better at doing what they do. It's never too early to reflect on the work that you've done and ask the question, Hey, we spent a lot of time in this pressure cooker of a milestone or a project.

[00:14:45] Are there any things we can learn about how we delivered this that we might wanna adapt or apply to the next thing that we do? what about not just like, In the delivery process, but like how we did it, how we spoke to each other, how we acted around the [00:15:00] client. Like are there things that we might want to change?

[00:15:02] because the other reality is that, 33% is the average turnover rate, annual turnover rate for an agency, right? So if one in three people or one in four people, is your average leave rate or exit rate for people in an agency. that's, that's an opportunity for a competitive advantage that as you focus on that, that becomes, something that you can share with your prospective clients because no client wants to take on the risk of somebody in their team leaving, right?

[00:15:34] Or somebody in the project leaving.

[00:15:36] When you think about a client who's coming in and they're evaluating, agencies, right? And they have to, they have a project, maybe it's a six month. Project, a year long project. Like let's be realistic about how some, some of these website projects can be, even though they might hope for three months, the reality is that they can go 6, 9, 12 months, between when you start and when you finish.

[00:16:00] And if in that time they have to. Expect or plan for retraining or you know, onboarding a new project manager or bringing somebody else in who's gotta pick up. Like that contributes time, effort, and risk to the project A as a whole. So being able as an agency to. Be able to hold up, Hey, you know, like we focus so much on our people, our team, and our culture, that it's become a competitive advantage for us.

[00:16:28] That you can expect that your team, that you start with on day one will be the team that finishes this project in a year. That for a lot of clients, I think would be a really valuable thing. And we're starting to see that. you can look at some of the major agencies in the WordPress ecosystem and see the badges from team and culture.

[00:16:48] You know, frameworks or, or, or certification bodies that they're involved with. And so if we can start to help agencies do that at the smaller level rather than at the enterprise level, we help to give them the ability to compete at that level as well.

[00:17:03] Matt: I'm curious if you have a take on. High performers, under performers, in, in a team, especially in a small team. Are there ways that you have, or will approach that with T W P or help with guidance? In other words, underperformer.

[00:17:24] Is it the wrong tasks or tasks? Tasks, overwhelming. Are, are they in the wrong role, before just saying, Hey, you're outta here. and then flip side, the top performers, the high performers sometimes, and I am, I am guilty of this. Don't wanna do. The reporting, here's what you're working on, like the, like do all these extra administrative things, where I'm like, no, I'm just doing the work.

[00:17:49] Like my output is proven here. but I get why we have to do all of this other interconnected team stuff to make other people aware. [00:18:00] It's a fine balance, especially in remote work because you're not working with, you know, you're not in the same room, you're not having the, you know, in-person meetings, et cetera.

[00:18:07] So I'm just curious, again, no direct question there, but how you maybe approach from an individual level, low performer, high performer, and, and maybe what you'd advise with, with situations like that.

[00:18:19] James: Well, let me first start by saying nobody is born perfect. And, I

[00:18:25] Matt: You're hired James.

[00:18:27] James: Everyone, has periods where performance improvement is likely on, on their plate. and I will be very vulnerable and honest and say I have been through multiple performance improvement plans, with employers, and survive them because what we want is not to push somebody out.

[00:18:50] To help them grow into the role that, that we've, we were hoping them to be in. And that was my experience. And it's not always the case, that that happens, but, and it can be really, Emotional, right? Because you feel like, oh, I'm not doing good enough or, or things. But sometimes as managers, as leaders, we aren't very good at being ar articulate or clear around what the role actually is or what the expectations are, or are clear about what's needed.

[00:19:20] Right? And that's where performance improvement can be a really helpful strategy. So when you're dealing with an underperformer, It's always, I think, helpful to make sure that, the issues are work related and not personality related or, or like environmental, like if they've got stuff they're dealing with outside of work that's contributing to underperformance, that's obviously a totally different conversation.

[00:19:47] If it's just the work product, like the output. Of what they're doing needs to improve. it's, in my mind, there's actually two sides to that. There's, there's, you know, we need to get you up, but there's also, Hey, how can we convert this from a, the negative connotation of performance improvement to career progression.

[00:20:08] We want to give you, we wanna expand the skillset that you have. So that we can move you toward going from a junior developer to a mid-level developer or senior developer. And, if, if you've got capacity to do that, to develop an actual, skill matrix that you know, and, and a sense of here's when you know you've hit the bars, you've, you've done this well, or you can do this, or you can be good at that, that can actually help to, for an underperformer to, to move forward.

[00:20:38] I'd love to say I have all the answers to performance management. I don't. and, but, and it is very individualized, I think, and in WordPress especially, right? Like, like these conversations can be challenging, on small teams, but, honesty is really important as well. if you only have an annual performance review as the only outlet for [00:21:00] telling somebody about whether they're doing well or not.

[00:21:02] I think that is something that could easily change to a quarterly review or a quarterly catch up and feedback session. One thing no employee likes is to be surprised with something on a performance review that they were doing wrong nine months ago that they didn't know about. That's not helpful for anyone.

[00:21:24] so being quick to provide feedback, being quick to be able to correct, I think is helpful.

[00:21:29] Matt: you might not, this might not be the direction you're going in with, t wp. You might not have it ready yet, but do you have resources that people can access? for free, like a, a, a framework or a, a guide that they could, download or review on the site coming soon, perhaps, to maybe even get some of this thinking in place before engaging with you?

[00:21:53] James: From a performance point of

[00:21:54] Matt: Yeah. Or yeah. Like, or any,direct resource that they could download and start to implement, some of this critical thinking, you know, before they maybe sign the dotted line to, to work with you directly.

[00:22:05] James: Absolutely. you can download the open team framework, which is our eight core principles. That gives you a starting point. We also have like, how would you implement this in a small business, medium sized business, large business? So you can download that. I have a how to run a remote workshop. virtual workshop, guide as well.

[00:22:23] there's, some team and culture downloads there. Like just go through the blog and you'll find the downloads. There's, we try to put out one every week or two, the team sync toolkit. I have a slide deck that I put together for the, ATAR Web Agency Summit that has, a breakdown of what they are, and the plan is to release the Team Sync Toolkit as a collection of tools that anybody can, can use for free.

[00:22:49] and so that's coming very, very soon. and again, just to help with some of these, these things on the performance side. That's not necessarily a direction that we've considered going, not because we couldn't, it's just, there's a lot, I mean, there's a lot in team and culture to, to deal with. And we're, we're sort of picking the, the low hanging fruit, if you will, of that first, yeah.

[00:23:12] Matt: James Drew, team wp.co team WP dot c o. That's the website. You can check it out there. When one joins the 2023 Team Experience Index, they can click that and begin to take a survey. What is that person doing? a user starts to take that survey. What happens on the other side?

[00:23:32] James: So on the other side, we collect all of those responses and we aggregate that information. And if, if you think about how, surveys are done in like industry benchmarks, right? Like we don't actually have anything like that for WordPress. We have nothing that any company in WordPress can go to and say.

[00:23:52] I just wanna get a sense of like how. How people and agencies are feeling about the, in WordPress agencies specifically are [00:24:00] feeling about the work they're doing or WordPress co. WordPress product companies. So we want to be able to provide that for free to anyone. the results of that, that they can get a sense of that.

[00:24:10] So if you think of like Gallup or you know, some of these other polling places that provide our H B R Harvard Business Review that do these studies and provide access to this, this information to employers and leaders. That's what the Team Experience Index is. That's what you're doing when you are participating in that.

[00:24:27] You are contributing to an open. Resource that any company can use to start understanding team and culture in WordPress and, and opportunities for them to improve. Do we go to the individual companies and, you know, provide them with updates or, or like things No. Could we? Yes. Would it be anonymized?

[00:24:52] Absolutely. So like, no. You know, we could provide them with a, a little summary report if they want. but nobody actually has to leave their company name, so that's totally optional as well. I encourage you to do that cuz then we can get a sense of, good players and bad players, but, The other side to this, is I would love to get to a place where whole teams are championing doing this survey independently, and, and they're making, they're inviting everyone on their team to participate.

[00:25:20] and we can actually use that to reward and recognize teams that are doing the best,been. Putting out there on Twitter a little bit, the, the idea of the Open Team Awards. I would love to be in a place where I could celebrate and, and where we as a community could celebrate those companies that are doing it the best.

[00:25:38] so yeah, if you are a company in WordPress and, and you are looking for a free to, do an employee experience type thing, the team experience index is the way to go and I'm happy to coordinate that with any team that's interested in it.

[00:25:54] Matt: Team wp.co. James, thanks for hanging out.

[00:25:56] James: Thank you.