Hiring Talent & Managing a Team during Coronavirus: A Creative Director’s Perspective

The below is an interview with Divya Dileep, SVP Creative Director at CDM New York on what it’s like to hire talent and manage a team remotely.

Interviewer: Thanks for taking time to chat!

Interviewer: Given that you interviewed and hired candidates during this pandemic and after the stay at home order in NYC began, can you walk me through a couple of key steps in on-boarding talent remotely?

Interviewee: With starting someone remotely – planning who are the people they will really need to talk to, which people in which departments are imperative for a successful start, and identifying ahead of time with my team which projects they really need this person to be working on was all very important. I personally planned a little bit more on how I was going to onboard someone during this time because of course you can’t just walk the person over to someone’s desk. I made sure that he [new team member] knew who the people were in his circle and that they were readily available to him.

Interviewer: How did you introduce your new team member? Can you walk me through week 1?

Interviewee: His first day actually fell on the same day as our status meeting, and I asked everyone to turn their cameras on – without warning… on a Monday… at 9a. Next time, I’ll definitely be warning everyone ahead of time when cameras need to be on! [laughs]

I also had a meeting with him, his new partner, and the leads on the business as to establish here how I think you guys should work together – which I would never do normally. It’s level setting for everyone. Not just how I expect the team to work together but how I expect the candidate to support my team. I think it helped the candidate and the rest of the team to understand my expectations. It resets the tone of how people function together while apart.

Interviewer: How are you building relationships with new individual team members?

Interviewee: I’ve made an effort that in every call I’ve been with him on to keep my camera on so he can really start to get to know me, so we can feel like we are in the same room together even though we are not. And honestly, a LOT of talking. I reinforce it every day – that I need you to help me understand how you’re doing so that I can understand your pace. Too much? Too little?

In introducing him to the team, I also briefed him 1-on-1 on the dynamics and personality of the team and of clients, like here are things to watch out for, here are the things to think about, here is how I handle x – which I think is very important.

Interviewer: Did you do anything specific ahead of the candidate’s first day to help them hit the ground running?

Interviewee: Ahead of his first day I spoke to the team about him and asked each to think through what this candidate would do from day 1, what brands/projects he would be on, and what exactly he was going to work on. I clearly communicated that it’s not going to be as easy to be on-boarded like this so let’s think about how we can focus his various on-boarding sessions so that the time is thought through.

The candidate actually requested all of the brand materials ahead of day 1, which was very helpful as it also pushed us to be very organized!

Interviewer: How often are you checking in with new team members?

Interviewee: I check in every single day to specifically ask ‘How are you, today?’ It’s about making that personal connection outside of group calls. We chat daily via text or Teams, and I made a point to have a couple of 1-on-1 video calls in the candidate’s first week. I don’t check in via email that much, unless I need to forward him something, as it feels less personal.

Interviewer: Many people I’ve spoken to actually feel closer to their co-workers and leadership, bonding over this unprecedented strange time – that they feel they actually communicate more effectively with their co-workers and direct reports. Do you find that communication with your team is better, more focused, with each internal engagement serving a specific purpose or the opposite?

Interviewee: The former – I’m more cognizant of how much I am talking to them and when I’m talking to them. I think there is a lot less fluff conversation, which at times can be somewhat of a negative. Like I have one person on my team who always wears a bowtie [laughs] and right now I can’t just walk over to him, comment on the bowtie of the day, though I know even at home, he definitely has a bowtie on. [laughs] We also are all super distracted. I’m more cognizant of which of my team members need which kind of support right now. Like my team member who has three small children at home – and his wife works in the medical field – so I do my best not to waste his time as much as possible. I feel closer to each of them, and that I am more effective with my communications with them, and smarter with the time I spend with each of them. I also make sure that when I spend time with them, I’m truly focused. Like if my kids are out of control, I’ll just move the meeting because otherwise I’m not giving them undivided attention. Generally [laughs] I’m biased here, I’ve always felt close to my team.

Interviewer: With hiring freezes, furloughs and layoffs happening daily across every industry, and you happen to run a team at an agency that’s part of a large holding company. How are you managing and checking in with new talent? I often hear many candidates say that they are worried that since they were the last one in the door, they will be the first out.

Interviewee: I have not had specific conversations about it with new talent – what I have done is openly discuss that I know x client is cutting the budget, but I know what you’re going to work on to make sure my people are taken care of and remain billable.

I’m a big believer in don’t start a conversation that you don’t have an answer to, to some extent. We know this is happening, but we really have no sense of what this means for us right now. I emphasize what I do know, which is that my team is billable. It’s my job to keep them grounded to the things they really need to be doing. We have a job to do, let’s focus on that, holding company emails about impending changes can cause chaos – and we don’t need chaos – we have enough of that in this world.

Interviewer: What is the biggest friction point internally right now with everyone adapting to completely remote work?

Interviewee: People don’t know when to stop home and when to stop work. There are no boundaries. The people with families I think are feeling it the most. The guilt of having to deal with your family causes there to be even less of a boundary. You truly never get a sense of how someone is doing. Most parents are running around like chickens with their heads cut off, trying to manage their home lives, and their work life. Days are starting much earlier and ending much later than they should. There is no definitive ‘this is my work time’ and ‘this is my home time’. You’re never really giving yourself a break and a moment to say that it’s okay. I don’t know if anyone on my team would come to me and say ‘I’m struggling today’ even though they are fully empowered to do it – as if that means they are falling apart by admitting that.

Interviewer: How did you address the impact of the pandemic with your team?

Interviewee: The day this happened I wrote an email to everyone on my team – it was about taking a moment to take a breath, that this is going to be a really rough week, everything is going to take longer [as we adjust], everyone needs to be more patient, more forgiving. We need to start our week, every week, in that mindset. I specifically spoke to each team member, and said if you can’t do work today, you don’t do work today, just take the day – let’s help each other out. If today needs to be about your kids, take the day because you have to be the one to make those decisions for yourself – I can’t be the one to make them for you. As understanding as I am, I don’t know what you’re going through and I need you to tell me when you’ve had enough, and just need a day.

In the same vain, for the people who don’t have families could not be coping with the pandemic very well. You have no lens as to how they are doing. It’s so easy at the moment to hide in this world. That’s the human friction point. There are work frictions like technology and working through connecting with clients. But it’s the human friction that makes me nervous. If your soul isn’t in a good place, the work is not going to show.

Interviewer: What are the surprising benefits on hiring talent remotely?

Interviewee: You get to see their personality in an entirely different way. They are not putting on a show, you get to see them in their home, you get them at their most relaxed, there is less fluff. Like I don’t always get the bowtie John [laughs]. We are suddenly hyper-personal. It doesn’t feel as foreign or difficult to connect as I think many people assumed it would be.

Interviewer: What has been less than ideal?

Interviewee: The logistics! From figuring out the computer, and the time sheets, and the job numbers. We didn’t have that information readily available and organized going into this. I had to run around and hunt for it. After going through it once, we learned how to streamline it for the next candidate.

Interviewer: What advice would you offer another creative director who is on-boarding someone remotely?

Interviewee: My advice for the interview process: make sure the candidate has the opportunity to not only have conversations with their bosses but their peers and people who would be reporting to them. Identify people in your agency that represent the culture and can help tell the cultural story of the agency.

With on-boarding – Be patient and forgiving. Candidates need twice as much time to get on-boarded, not because they are not smart but because this is the most ridiculous way to be on-boarded. It’s not natural to shoot the sh*t on a video call. The relationships will take time to build. Check in more, have more 1 on 1’s than you normally would. It will help them to get a flavor of your people faster.

Interviewee: And logistics – set it all up ahead of time, everything from their work email to access to the programs they will need, that they have instructions of how to get into their new computer, give them the contact of IT so they know who to go to with issues.

Interviewer: What advice would you give a candidate who is about to make a job change in this environment?

Interviewee: Have as many video calls as you can so that you can get a sense of people! Ask a lot of questions about the people you’re going to be working with. Don’t just speak to your bosses, but your peers and people that would report into you. You can get a much better sense of what you’re actually walking into. And once you start, ask for check-ins often.

Interviewer: Can you tell me about your experience with the team to concept ideas, and iterate on creative, completely remote? What’s the brainstorm process like? Has it changed?

Interviewee: It takes a little bit more time, and more prep but I actually think we’re more efficient. Big groups I have found don’t make sense. We did a couple of brainstorm meetings with large groups and the client and it was just so awkward. Small and nimble works. One thing we changed after our first virtual brainstorm meeting, we decided to never have a meeting that is more than an hour long for individual participants. Chunk out the work so you really have people focusing. Time is of the essence these days now more than ever!

Interviewee: [Son interrupts] See this is what happens in real life! [laughs] He thinks he’s working on my laptop – too funny.

Interviewer: Lastly, you’re in pharma advertising, how are brands/clients reacting to Covid-19?

Interviewee: Some clients are taking more of a backseat – let’s be more focused about what we are doing so that we are ready to go when this passes. Clients are also re-prioritizing the work right now so that they are ready to hit the ground running. While other clients – maybe they are less hospital based, or more patient friendly – I’ve seen more of an uptick and quickly pivoted to make a work stream out of this, which I think is really great. What I think nobody has done, in my personal opinion, is that pharma companies have not rallied behind an idea or initiative – [consumer] brands have, agencies have, but no pharma companies have. They are not put a stake in the ground on how they feel about Covid-19 and how they will rise above it. I think it’s largely because it’s too complicated for them to circle their head around it, but no pharma companies have engaged an agency to do that for them. Like why wouldn’t you? You’re there for the doctors. It’s a social statement. It’s a soft pivot. If I owned a pharma company, on the first day I would have held a brief with my agency to ask for a social campaign by the end of the week that spoke to how we are going to support you and how we are going to rise above it. It would set them apart.

Interviewer: I can’t thank you enough for taking the time!

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