Episode 53: Creating a Culture That Lasts, With Hannah Staal and Derek Fricano

Ten Thousand Feet Podcast Episode 53 – Creating a Culture That Lasts With Hannah Staal and Derek Fricano

In this episode:

We all want it, but how do we get it? We speak to Hannah Staal, Talent Acquisition Lead, and Derek Fricano, Design Team Manager, about building a culture that lasts within an organization.  

How do you create a workforce that withstands change, from updating job titles to experiencing a global pandemic? Hannah and Derek discuss building career portfolios, creating dynamic teams and sustaining culture. Tap the play button to get started. 


This podcast content was created prior to our rebrand and may contain references to our previous name (OST) and brand elements. Although our brand has changed, the information shared continues to be relevant and valuable.

Episode Transcript

Kiran Patel: Hello. Welcome to today’s episode of Ten Thousand Feet: The OST Podcast. So as you may have heard, OST is celebrating a milestone this year of 25 years in business. We wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on how we’ve gotten to this point and what it’s looked like to achieve this milestone. And on that note, I’m joined today by Hannah Staal, talent acquisition lead, and Derek Fricano, our design team manager. Hannah and Derek, are two people who immediately come to mind when I think of embodying the spirit of this organization.

So I wanted to bring them on to talk about what it takes to get to 25 years and just to pull back the curtain a little bit and talk through a number of different parts about how this organization is what it is today. So Hannah, welcome to the show. 

Hannah: Thanks for having me. 

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Kiran: Derek, so great to have you. 

Derek: Thank you, Kiran. It’s nice to be here. 

Kiran: Excellent. So I think there’s so many different things we can talk about as far as organizations. The people that make up companies and how we got to this milestone. But I thought where we might start – Hannah, I just wanted to start with you, and I know especially in your role overseeing talent, you’ve had to change and respond more than ever these past couple years.

And I know that you continue to need to look for people who will want to call this organization home. So could you just talk a little bit about how your approach has changed to finding and securing talent for an organization? And then talk a little bit about why having, you know, a flexible workforce is just so critical to an organization’s success.

Hannah: Yeah, absolutely. When I joined OST, I joined specifically for the culture, for the flexibility. Because it was known, the brand was great here in West Michigan where I’m located, and I was able to truly utilize the brand when recruiting applicants and when I mentioned applicants, we had active applicants in our tracking system and so I wasn’t doing as much external outreach.

The pandemic has changed everything in recruiting and I think all recruiters can agree with me when I say this has been one of the most exciting and challenging times in my career, and so now a lot of our time is spent sourcing externally. We have to shift how we sell positions. We have to shift how we support our employees internally. We have to shift truly all of the practices that we’ve done before. Now, what matters to us is ensuring that we’re supporting our employees internally. So we need to think about equity as the market has changed. We need to think about market dynamics and ensure that those are aligned with who we are as an organization and what we can afford and how we hire mindfully so that as we look to the future, we’re prepared on anything that may occur, whether it’s a recession or another pandemic, we are prepared, and so hiring decisions play a huge role in that. 

Kiran: That was really insightful. Let me ask you the follow up question. Can you talk about why having a workforce that is ready to adapt with the changes is important in terms of creating an organization that is long lasting. How can you speak to that? 

Hannah: OST has had the opportunity to shift and evolve, and the pandemic truly helped that. We have been able to move so quickly. We’ve been so agile in our hiring processes. Within a month, we were hiring across the nation. Before the pandemic, we had remote employees in six states, and now we have remote employees in 31 states.

We’ve been able to send technology across the country. We’ve been able to work with contractors. Contractors play a huge role in how to maintain stability. We have contracting partners that have worked with us for five plus years, eight plus years, and we’re able to really shift that work to them based on the conditions of the market, based on the needs that we have, and it’s a really strong partnership.

So with that, we have not only fluctuated in how we hire, where we hire, who we hire, but we’ve been able to adapt very quickly, and that’s super important if we’re going to be successful now and in the future. 

Kiran: Yeah. And Derek, for you keeping on this theme of people as design practice manager, I’m certain that you’ve had to continue to look for talent that will help this organization in its goals. So can you talk a little bit about what you do to build a team that you could help succeed and why it’s so important to have just a strong team that wants to call this organization home? 

Derek: Yeah, I mean, we couldn’t do what we do without the help of talent, without Hannah’s help.

I mean, to her point over the last, I mean, since I’ve been a design team manager, it’s been about four months. We were already focused on scaling up. Like our, the– fortunately for us, our services are in demand. We’ve got a sales force that is actively speaking to, you know, the capabilities that OST affords with design. And so, as you know, more businesses come in, more design capability is necessary, and so we’ve been trying our best to sort of address that need. Working within the confines of a pandemic, working within the confines of the Great Resignation has certainly presented its shared challenges, as Hannah had said.

But again, like I think that this is why working with Hannah and this, I feel like our talent team really deeply understands the things that we need. I feel like we’ve got great partners there and really what we’re looking for, I think, transcends just the sort of typical resume points and bullet points about, you know, academic background or work history.

The things that I think make our team special and the things that I think make people wanna be a part of our team is the appetite for creative thinkers, like people who are willing to learn and just fun to work with. You know, for us, we want problem solvers. We want people that are willing to get into the middle of some of the very robust and very, you know, sometimes not very well defined client spaces that we find ourselves in, and we want people that can feel comfortable getting in the middle of that and leading that. 

Hannah: I can share that I’ve seen Derek’s team evolve and grow and strengthen during this time. We had a lot of change during the pandemic.

We had some loss during the pandemic and that was challenging, and that was everywhere in the market. And Derek’s leadership and Abby’s leadership has now grown their team with two other leaders. They’ve grown their team with new capabilities, and when we think about having a lasting impact, staying past that 25 years, looking forward to the next 25 years, Derek and Abby have added new capabilities.

We’ve added research, we’ve added service. We’ve added individuals with PhDs that are bringing in new capabilities that we’ve never seen before. 

Kiran: That’s great. You both are talking about a few different things, which I think is important as we talk about characteristics that make up organizations that succeed, and that is flexibility and adaptability, being ready to change and move directions as necessary.

I wanted to touch a little bit on what I just read an article about: career portfolios. I found that to be interesting, as in the career ladder isn’t as you know, static as it once was. But instead with people moving around so much, they’re looking for opportunities to almost build a brand for themselves within the organization. So how are you equipping people to succeed and build career portfolios, you know, for where they are now and maybe where they wanna go? 

Derek: Yeah, when you sent me that article, it was a nice moment of validation because if it weren’t for sort of having an eye on careers as portfolios as opposed to a very sort of prescribed sequence of places, I probably wouldn’t have a job at OST, like my own background is not particularly adherent to the typical designers’ background. And I think that again, like the strength of what we’ve been — the strength of the people that we’ve been able to bring in recently has been because we are willing to look outside of that just sort of very prescriptive view of what it takes to make a quote-unquote designer or a quote-unquote researcher.

You know, there are certainly things that people need to be able to demonstrate. There are aptitudes and things like that, but you know, we’ve got folks who come from largely academic backgrounds. We’ve got folks who come from backgrounds that are much different than just strictly, you know, coming straight from programs, some sort of training, and then going from one job as you know, junior designer to a senior designer.

You know, again, speaking just specifically for me, I was supposed to be a teacher, but I’ve been working in design now for 25ish years. And the way that we facilitate that here, I think that within design as a practice, we’ve got different areas of focus, service design research, user experience design, interface design, and we try really hard as design team managers to work with our people and understand what is it that they are finding enjoyment in right now.

But also where are those places where maybe there are these little synapses firing about, Well, you know, this actually I heard about this thing, or, We started to do this in our client work, and I really like, I don’t feel like I’m there yet, but I’d really love to learn more about what this is. It’s really trying to actively engage with the people on our staff to understand like, oh, where might these, you know, little emerging directions start to form for them. And maybe it’s not even in design. Maybe principle consultancy is the thing. Maybe, you know, making a move into supporting marketing is a thing. Maybe it’s moving into development. Maybe it’s, you know, one of many different things. Again, using myself as a model, I didn’t really ever consider people management as a thing, but working within OST and working within the folks with, you know, in our team, I’m, you know, the poster child for that guidance.

So I think that’s how we want the folks on our team to understand working with us, is that we understand the capabilities that you bring, but we’re all very dynamic. Again, like we wanna bring people who want to learn onto our teams because skill sets change, tool sets change all the time. And people, we wanna acknowledge that people are entitled to exactly that same sort of plasticity in what they do. 

Kiran: Yeah, that’s terrific. And I’m sure you can speak to that too. Have you seen more people that want to join the organization and build that portfolio for themselves and how has that forced you to think differently about what you do?

Hannah: One of the most important commitments that OST, that you may have heard before is that we want you to leave OST better than how you came. And so with us, that’s a variety of different experiences. You will be able to leave saying that you’ve worked through challenging client communications. A really tough client that maybe wasn’t the easiest, but you learned a heck of a lot.

You will be able to leave saying you worked with a very collaborative, cross-functional team. And that is where I stress when I’m talking to candidates is that I understand people have different priorities and some of our candidates may truly value that title, that may be important to them, and if it is, we do what we can to make sure that we are supporting them in either coming in with that title or we put them on a path to get to the title that they desire.

However, at OST, I think what you’ll find is that we are so collaborative. We are all digging in. We are all doing our part, and I do my best to sell that when I’m working with candidates because it doesn’t come down to the title here at OST. It’s more about experiences, it’s more about people, it’s more about belonging than anything else and we just hope that when you leave, you’re leaving better than you came. 

Kiran: Yeah that’s great to hear. That is the kind of thing that a prospective candidate I’m certain would wanna hear. You mentioned titles so I wanted to follow up with you a little bit on that, and I imagine that so many organizations have reexamine titles to account for remote work and other changes. So, Derek, maybe I’ll start with you. How have you adjusted for that? Are people wanting a lot more flexibility? You talked a little bit about that career path, but just talk a little bit about how titles have changed and how that’s been kind of prompted by recent times.

Derek: Oh, yeah. I think that one of the — that’s been one of the things that’s been most interesting about looking at the sort of operational side of design as a practice, like, you know, as a practitioner, as somebody that’s to focus more on client work you don’t really look at things — titles never really occurred to me other than the fact of like how I was introducing myself or like how I had to make sure that a client was aware of my role.

But when you look at it from the perspective, Holy cow, we’ve got positions that we need to fill and we need to broadcast that out to a, you know, prospective hire. It becomes really clear how important the language of those roles is. Thinking about just hiring in our additional design team managers, at the point in time that we had posted those roles, they were called team leads cause that was how it was referred to at OST and we found that there was a bit of a gap in understanding exactly what the requirements of the role was because what team lead meant to us internally to OST was somewhat different than what it meant to other folks, you know, out in other spaces. So I think that when we look at the role of design at a sort of practitioner level, I think we’ve been relatively fortunate because words like designer or service designer or researcher, I think those are relatively stable.

They’re pretty time tested. But when you get into some of those more senior variations or the more that you start to signify the amount of experience people have had, and when you start to occupy those spaces where it’s maybe taking on more of a strategic view of the work or where the work starts to focus more on leadership as opposed to execution, which is not to say that there is no leader, that those are exclusive things, but as the roles start to mature, it’s certainly the language and I think the space that those roles occupy is maybe a little bit less defined all the way across the board. We’ve tried to respond to that. We’re in the midst right now of some very operational work within our practice to really go back and look at how we describe roles and then really think about the language that we use to define them.

Is it something that makes sense when we communicate about it within our own organization. How does it look when we start to throw that out to other, you know, perspective hires? Does it make sense? Does it map to their experience? Is it something that, you know, when we’re in interviews for those things, do we get the sense that, you know, that they’re really matching what we’re looking for, You know, in terms of how we consider the role versus how they consider the role.

So I think there’s work to be done there, but I think that we’re doing a lot of introspection on that right now. And again, partnering with Hannah and with talent to understand what they’re hearing and the things that they’re seeing from the folks that are responding to some of those postings has really helped us to make sure that we’re in better alignment with what is out in the world around OST, as well as you know how we consider it ourselves. 

Kiran: Yeah, and once again, I hear the same themes coming up, just flexibility and responding appropriately, but also staying abreast of just how the industry is changing and being aware and not being so insular in our approach but how others are doing it too.

Hannah, I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about just how people are critical throughout the 25 year history. Meaning obviously times change and trends change, but this has always been an organization that is people first. You know That’s our focus. So why has that been a critical thread that’s kind of tied through the history as far as your experience?

Hannah: Yeah, my experience, I’ve been here for a little over four years and the pandemic was such a big turning point for the world. And OST, while the people change, While the market changes, while the technologies change, their support remained. And so we saw that as internal employees, as teammates, as family of OST.

We saw the mental health workshops. We saw the flexibility and schedule. We saw variety of different ways that OST was supporting us, and I look at that as a critical aspect of why we are successful, because if we weren’t supporting our people, if we were not able to be as blessed as we are, if we had to do layoffs during that time, we would’ve seen much more turnover and we would’ve seen possibly a, just a much more negative impact.

But because we put our people first and our values remain true, that in my opinion, is one of the biggest reasons that we’re most successful. And again, I’m a little biased because I come from the people side of the business. But ultimately without our people, who are we? And again, our people will change because individuals need growth opportunities.

They need adventure, they need new experiences, and sometimes those are going to be outside of OST and we have to be okay with that. We have to cheer them on, watch them as they grow. But also welcome new employees in and show and share with them the value that we have as people and why we love working together as much as we do.

And I think that critical people aspect has not changed. That has always been here, and that’s why we’re super successful. The other element that is super important is our agility and speed. So when I think back to March of 2020, I believe we had kick off. And we talked about eCommerce, and it was the first time many of us were hearing about eCommerce and what our plans were in that space.

Wow. What an opportunity, as traumatic as Covid was and continues to be, we had an opportunity to grow business in that space at the right time, and we were able to be very agile and quick to implement that solution. So our agility and our people. Even at 350 people right now, I think make us really strong in their milestones of who we are.

Kiran: Any thoughts you wanted to add to that, Derek? Just your observations on why people first has been a part of the successful equation here. 

Derek: Yeah. I think it’s impossible not to reflect back on March of 2020 and that idea of our agility. And the thing that dawns on me reflecting on that is how seamless it felt like.

It never felt like the people had to bring concern to the organization, and the organization had to deliberate on it. And then we had to wait for things it felt like as you know, we are all processing the things that are happening around us and with our families and with our friends and everything.

Somewhere behind the scenes, our leadership at OST and the people that were responsible for making these choices and changes on our behalf, I felt very deeply understood in those moments because things like, you know, remote work, which I think it’s — it like, to sound like the old person in the room, like it’s easy to take for granted, like how big of a shift that is for a lot of places and having family and friends who work in organizations that are perhaps less agile in those sorts of ways. Like I think they felt a great burden in making that adaptation where I felt like it was just an expectation like, and it wasn’t ever from the perspective of remain productive or continue to do work, it was just like, I think we all knew that we wanted to keep doing what felt vital to us, but it was just adapt how you need to adapt in order to do that stuff. 

But then, after the functional stuff was taken care of, that was when like this whole other layer started to make itself apparent of the way that I think we care for our people. You know, it’s not every day that suddenly you realize that, well, my office is basically comprised of a couple of cardboard boxes in the corner, and then again, seemingly the next day, it’s like, well, it’s cool. We know that now your home is kind of in office. Here are resources for you to be able to make that a more comfortable space, a space that feels more intentional and that you can actually, you know, sort of enjoy working in as opposed to just making it function. I think that the ways that I have felt cared for and the ways that I think that I want our organization, our design organization, and OST at large to care for people, are those ways that maybe feel a little bit less, less gimmicky, less flashy. I feel like we do that very well because there’s an ongoing sense that we’re heard and that people are listening to us and they’re actually responding to the things that make us tick beyond just, you know, maybe more superficial needs or things. 

Kiran: And Hannah, this is reminding me of as far as people you mentioned, I know we could have a entirely separate conversation on this, but you did mention a increased emphasis on equity as part of what you do, and I’m certain that recent events have emphasized the need for conversation in this space.

So can you talk a little bit about. The intentionality there and how that has been a critical part of what you do in your space and OST as a whole. 

Hannah: For the first time in my career, I saw the market boom. Candidates were king. It was wild to watch and a national market opened up for everyone. Everyone in the country could now recruit nationally.

We could recruit nationally. Our competitors, Google could recruit nationally, and we had larger companies that we can’t compete with coming for our people because our people are talented and they worked with compensation ranges that were hard to match. And often we had to really look at the internal team equity and say, Is this doable for us?

How will we take care of our current people and ensure that we are being fair and honest with ourselves and thoughtful in these decisions? I think if you look at the market now, you’re seeing that a lot of those larger companies that made those very fast decisions to hire abruptly are paying for it, unfortunately, and it affects a lot of people.

So while for a moment in 2021, it felt very fast and furious. Everything was moving so quick, we had to make hiring decisions within a week. It was the wildest time of my career and very stressful and scary. We were still mindful, We were still thoughtful, and we’ve taken steps with our HR business partners to then move the equity to ensure that our people are being matched to what incoming candidates are asking for.

It’s a slow process. It’s not something that you can move instantly you just can’t. And ensuring that when we’re mindful in these approaches and looking toward the future, whatever it may hold, that we’re taking these baby steps to get there. So we hire very thoughtfully. We look at many different factors when we’re hiring from market compensation, geography, years of experience, technologies, education, all the way over to, okay, well where is the market currently?

And then we align all of those factors, but definitely a wild ride. It was so interesting to experience and it was a really big challenge. I’m starting to see it slow down now, feeling really great about the changes in the market. We have more time to make decisions and we’re at a place now where we feel very confident to say, You may just not be the right person for OST at this time, and we can say no.

But for a time where we really needed people, we may need to negotiate or we may need to make changes. So it’s definitely changed. It continues to evolve and I’m here for the ride. 

Derek: You’ve been an extremely supportive partner through the ride. Holy cow. There were so many weeks where I, you know, design had very strong needs and I just, I couldn’t imagine the amount of energy that you were expending behind the scenes to just keep everything running the way that it was running. That was, yeah, those were pretty wild times.

Hannah: Derek and I partnered very closely for quite a long time, the last couple years even–

Derek: Oh, absolutely.

Hannah: In hiring for his team so it’s been fun. 

Derek: I think that’s the thing. High pressure situations sort of breed a different sort of collegiality, if that’s the right word for it. Right? Like, like you get in the middle of some of those and you’ve got friends for life after that. 

Kiran: Yes. I like that. I like that. Hannah, I know you and Derek have both in different capacities, been involved in conversations internally and externally about the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

And I certainly think that is a part of the recipe for a successful, long lasting organization. I mean, for many reasons, being observant, engaging, listening. So I’m wondering, Hannah, if you could just talk a little bit about why you’ve spent time and energy in that space and how you think that has helped OST be responsive and a member of an engaged community.

Hannah: Yeah. I am really excited about this topic. We had worked together Kiran in 2019 to really start mindful efforts around DEI at OST, we felt that there was a lot of inclusivity at OST, but we wanted to put some strong documentation, facilitation, more opportunities around DEI at OST and ensure that we were looking at a variety of different ways that we could engage and evolve and develop and just get stronger in that area.

And so, I’ve decided to put more intentionality behind it and more commitment because it makes us better, it makes us stronger. It brings so much positive impact with different perspectives at OST. Consulting is so collaborative and cross functional, and it takes so many different minds. And in technology, we know the data behind how technology is composed.

And we want to ensure that we are touching minorities, that we’re touching gender, that we’re touching veterans, that we’re touching a variety of different people so that we can make the best work happen. 

Kiran: Perfect. Well said. Derek, same question for you. Just how you’ve seen a need for diversity and looking at the work that you do with that lens, how you’ve seen that come into play and why you think that’s important for what you.

Derek: Yeah, I think we live in, you know, unprecedented times in terms of the impacts of the things that we build. And I think that for a long time, you know, we were very focused on the capability of all of the new tools that were suddenly at our disposal. I’ve read things, descriptions of it to say like, you know, we built a lot of toys and now we look back and we see the hills of toys that we’ve built, and we start to wonder like, how did those toys really impact us and how did they impact people around them? What are the ways, the unintended ways that they may have caused impact? And, you know, Were they actually good for us? And I think that the only way that we can really understand how something affects and impacts other people, you know, in human-centered design, the whole core of it is to really understand the humans that are impacted or that are going to be using the things that you make.

And, you know, at the core of that idea is that we want to understand more than just a singular point of view. I can never be, you know, the sole spokesperson on behalf of who, all of the different people that are going to be using the things that I may have a hand in building. And the only way that I can understand the lived experience of those people is by going out and actually like having more meaningful experience in that space. I have, you know, the life that I’ve lived and it is not reflective of probably even a small segment of the users that would put any of the products that we build at OST into practice. I’ve been really– I feel like I’m very fortunate to work in an environment that has put so much focus on DEI efforts and has made a space that is safe for all of our participants.

I’m extremely naive in so many things. And in the spaces that you’ve curated, in the spaces that others have curated here, I really feel like I am afforded the latitude to learn and to just, and to really participate and understand the ways that I need to grow in order to be a better practitioner of responsible and equitable design, but also just to be a more equitable and responsible human in the world and the ecosystems that we participate in.

Kiran: Love that. If people have been listening closely, I’m certain they’ve hopefully got a list of ingredients that they can cook up and use themselves to create a organization that reaches such a milestone. As we wrap up here, Hannah, any closing thoughts? Anything else that you would like to add?

Hannah: Well, responding to Derek’s last comment, it’s funny in my head I thought, And I apologize for the warm and fuzzies here, but I’m a smarter, better human because of OST, and I don’t think many people can say that about their organization. But I’m not just a better worker. I’m a better recruiter. I did that all on my own.

But I am a smarter, better human because of the people I’m surrounded by that are always going to be more intelligent than I am. And I’m a better human because I’m learning every day about empathy, about innovation, curiosity, a variety of different skills that maybe I wouldn’t have gotten if I was here.

Kiran: It’s hard to beat that. 

Derek: Yeah I 100% agree. I think that places I’ve worked in the past, it’s always been a focus on what you deliver or what you are able to do for the business. And then the nice byproduct is that you know, you are maybe recognized or you’re afforded opportunity to grow yourself in addition to that stuff. I feel like that paradigm is inverted at OST. I feel like I am given– There’s so much focus on developing me as a leader, as a participant in my community, as a, just a person within this, within OST, that filters down into the way that I execute on my work and that I feel like the work that I do is made so much better.

By that and it’s the hope that– it’s my hope that’s the focus that I’m bringing to the work that I’m doing with our teams. If you feel provided for, if you feel like you’re getting what you need in terms of your personal growth, your curiosity, again, like your understanding of the world and the way that you interact with it.

All the rest of it. I think that all of our people wanna deliver what’s right for our clients and for the people that they are, or that our clients are representing and working with. It’s just, you know, it’s how we look at building our teams. I think that the currency for that is that we take care of them and do what we need to help people grow.

Kiran: Awesome. I appreciate both of your time. Thank you both for being on Hannah. Thank you.

Hannah: Thanks.

Kiran: And Derek, thanks for your time.

Derek: Thank you.

Kiran: OST. Changing how the world connects, together. For more information, visit ostusa.com/podcast.