The Power of Syncing Up, with ignite CEO Jeff Rum
How do you strengthen team culture in a fully virtual workspace? It’s no secret that companies the world over have relied on quick and innovative thinking to overcome the obstacles set by the pandemic. Rising to meet these challenges in spite of uncertainty—and experiencing incredible growth as a result—is the cornerstone of ignite, the boutique brand and digital marketing agency founded by Jeff Rum.
I recently interviewed Jeff Rum, an award-winning digital strategist, educator, and public speaker with nearly 15 years of experience in digital branding and marketing. Prior to founding ignite in 2015, Jeff was a partner and Chief Marketing Officer at SPARK Experience, a user experience agency. Jeff also served as a digital consultant with The White House, United Nations Foundation, and The Human Rights Campaign.
From strategizing on how to express brand identity within a fully remote company to navigating recruitment strategies for growing teams, hear what Jeff had to say about leading teams to success through uncertain times, and how he’s still learning and growing as a leader, in the interview below.
Jeff Rum: My name is Jeff Rum and I’m the founder and CEO of ignite. We are, I would say, strategists and storytellers building brands, campaigns, and digital marketing strategies. We’re a full-service creative agency, but I think what sets us apart are two things. One is we believe in strategy-driving campaigns in creative and digital spaces. A lot of our work helps organizations develop the right kind of marketing communication strategies. The creative side is, “How do we execute that and make it inspire people?”
The second thing that makes us unique is that we primarily work with purpose-driven organizations, which includes non-profits, associations, and foundations primarily. We do have some clients that fall outside of the nonprofit space, but they tend to be corporate clients that are really mission-driven.
I started ignite because I found there was a gap in the market, especially for mid-size organizations that really needed a strategic partner in thinking about their brand and how they communicate, and doing it at a level that we would provide for a Fortune 500 company. So not skimping, doing things the right way, making sure that we have a strategy without it being a very expensive venture.
So I built ignite six years ago in 2015 after leaving my previous agency. My mission is really to help organizations that do good work in the world have better voices and stronger brands. We started out with just me, and then I hired someone to help me, and then we hired a third person. At the start of the pandemic, we had four full-time staff members. Today, we’re at 17 and we have six open positions. So, we’ll be somewhere between 20 and 22 by the end of the summer. It’s been a real steep growth for us, and it’s very exciting. We’re also 100% remote, which makes it interesting, as I haven’t met most of our staff in person.
Because we went remote at the start of the pandemic, we allowed ourselves to look at staff members across the country to hire, instead of just in our backyard. Before then, we were a D.C.-based company. All of our staff were in D.C. We had an office, we came in every day, we had lunch together, and then when the pandemic hit we made a decision pretty quickly that we were going to leave the office setting and build a remote company. We started hiring new employees across the country—New York, Florida, Kentucky, California, and everywhere in between.
So that’s where we are today. And like I said, we’re definitely in a growth mode. I feel like we’re becoming a teenager in terms of our trajectory, and soon we’ll be in adulthood, but we’re in this teenage phase right now where we’re just figuring out how to do the best work we can as we grow and as we bring on more people who really believe in the values of our company.
Chase Damiano: Wow, I love that. That’s a really impressive growth story just in terms of…
JR: I don’t know if it’s impressive or insane.
CD: Yeah, a little bit of both.
JR: I think a little bit of both.
CD: I remember at the beginning of the pandemic going to your office and meeting you there. And I think that was the week or maybe the week before everything went into chaos. I remember being in a car on the way back thinking about it. I was like, “Should I be in an Uber right now? I don’t really know.”
JR: Start putting out all the hand sanitizers everywhere.
JR: Yeah I remember. It was a weird time and for whatever reason, our services were needed during that time, and a lot of organizations were figuring out: How do we go digital? How do we express our brand in a new way, because we’re no longer running events or doing programs in person, or running campaigns in person? So we saw a real spike in demand for the work that we do. And we were just, I think, just getting better and better at what we did. So the stars aligned in a really terrible moment for the world. We were also dealing with staff who were single and very isolated, and some of our staff members have many children and working from home is really hard.
So, we started to become more of a family and figuring out how to help each other. I think that brought us closer, even though we were virtual, just trying to figure out. How do we navigate through the pandemic together? I think that’s part of our growth story. We had people who really cared and wanted to do good work, make a difference, and help each other. And then we would just attract people that also were in that same mindset. So I’m really just thrilled at the staff and the team we have now. But growing is hard.
CD: Yeah, growing is hard, and it sounds like part of your attitude or philosophy towards it is especially…
I think we’ve all had to learn a little bit more about bringing a more human aspect of ourselves into the workplace because of all these new changes and conditions that all of us as individuals have become subject to. The number of dogs barking in the background or people being interrupted by their kids and seeing that play out has made me, and it sounds like you’re the same way, a lot more attentive towards this whole person, this whole human that’s a part, where we, as leaders, are a part of their life. We almost get an invitation through work at home, literally into their homes, and see more of who they are as people and what their lives are like.
I love that your attitude is trying to build that family and trying to be more present for each other. It sounds like it’s been a really big success for you.
JR: Yeah. I think so far. I think that one of the challenges we face now is that we’re also on the other side of the pandemic, how do we continue to build the culture that we have and find ways that we can really connect with each other, that’s not just via Zoom, like this.
So one of the things we’re doing is we’re having a leadership retreat quarterly. Our first one is in a couple of weeks and we’re going to have an all-staff retreat twice a year, the first one being in November or October. I think those will be opportunities for us to really learn from each other, but also primarily just get to know each other. We have meetings every day, all day long on Zoom. But we don’t have those moments where you’re in an office and you’re getting to know each other, getting lunch together, having coffee. So I think we’re trying this hybrid model where we can come together a few times a year and use the time really for team-building, less work, but more getting to know each other, and building trust in each other, too.
CD: Yeah. I think all of us are thinking in that direction, in terms of, how we build the culture we want to be a part of in a virtual environment where most of our time interacting is over a really intentional or specific topic, whether it’s a weekly leadership sync or it’s meeting to specifically talk about a client or a project to drive things forward. It feels like we’ve become really intentional on working together, but maybe a little less so in being together.
You had shared that having the growth story that you had has also caused you to form the first leadership team within ignite. Beforehand, everyone was an executor, where really you were leading the company as the solo founder, but now you’ve promoted this leadership team and you’ve been thinking about building more structure on that leadership team, making people feel more invested, and they really can contribute to the growth of the company. Tell me a little bit more about what has happened so far. Can you share some more details?
JR: Yeah, sure. So actually what happened was before we formed this leadership team, if you think about the organizational chart, I am at the top as the founder/CEO, but I did have a managing director who was incredible and did a lot of great work. But I think one of the things that I learned as a leader is as we grew, we didn’t change the structure. So she was overseeing all of the project work. She was doing some of the project work. She was handling HR issues, dealing with operations, creating an employee handbook, building templates, and also dealing with any red flags that came up in the work that we do with projects and staff members.
When we were four people, it was fine and manageable, but as we grew, I think I realize now looking back, that there was a lot on her shoulders and we had to break that down. So we basically took her position and broke it out into several positions, which as you know when you have management folks that are not primarily bringing in revenue or the work that they do is not directly linked to revenue, it’s more of an overhead. So we had to really think through what that meant for the company and how do we manage that? We have now someone who’s the director of people and operations, but the idea is that now if our operations are smoother and our people are happier, we retain people and we can onboard them more quickly, then it’s contributing to the revenue and the operability of the company.
We have a director of project management who oversees all of our project managers who are, essentially, making sure all of our projects are running smoothly. So with our director of project management in that position creating systems, processes, and training project managers to do their jobs more efficiently, it’s actually impacting the business in a positive way. Then we hired a new director of digital and brand digital strategy, who’s really overseeing all of our strategists. Doing that is the heart and soul of the work that we build. Our art director oversees the creative side. Together we formed a team of people who each have a role and will have KPIs and will be responsible and accountable for meeting their goals. No longer is that on the shoulders of someone, one or two people. It’s now spread across a leadership team.
This is still new. We’ve only had this structure set up for the last month or so, but I can already see a big difference. We’re lucky we have really smart people at the table and I feel like they all contribute in different ways. So it’s exciting, but also we are a new team, so we have to learn how to work together in that way.
CD: Yeah. So in that vein, Jeff, it sounds like you just recently built this leadership team splitting out new positions. You talked a little bit about the need to build in some leadership structure and sounds like you have a viewpoint on how that might work. So tell me a little bit more about the challenge that you’re running into with respect to this.
JR: The challenge is time and speed. Because we’ve made this transition, we have three people that are moving out of their day-to-day roles into more managerial roles. That transition has taken longer than I had hoped. We still have our director of people at operations, for example, who is still managing several projects, because, before this, her role was senior project manager.
Everyone on our team is, in some way, still leading or working on projects. Getting them out takes some time and we need new people to come in to seamlessly take over those responsibilities. We’re in this gap where they’re trying to do their new jobs well, because that’s where their trajectory is with their leadership growth to set the company up for success. At the same time, they still have clients that have needs. I think we’re in this in-between mode right now. It stretches even the leadership team because they’re being tactical, but they’re also being asked by me to think strategically and help grow the company. So that’s been challenging.
CD: It sounds like recruitment is a part of solving that challenge.
CD: What else about this challenge is either nebulous or unclear or has been difficult that might not have a clear solution yet?
JR: I think because these roles are pretty much all new, everyone’s still trying to figure out, including myself, who’s responsible for what. We all have job descriptions, but I still sometimes, even myself, think, “Oh, should I send this to this person or that person? Is this an operations thing, or is it a project management thing? This software is up for renewal, but it’s tied to my account, but I wanted to get it into our operations, but we need a different…”
From every small thing like that, we have software technical needs that need to move into other people’s responsibility to just hiring and onboarding. Who does the last interview? How do we make sure that we’re hiring the right people? Who does this person report to? How do we align salaries?
There are just lots of questions. We generally know the answers to many of them, but it’s tough to do a lot of change management while you’re also rowing and doing the work. It’s a lot. I’m asking a lot from our leadership team, but they’ve all stepped up to the plate and I think they’re willing and certainly capable of doing the work. But we have some clean-up to do, I would say.
CD: It sounds like you have role descriptions, but there’s still some thinking in terms of how might all these pieces work together and how the flow of information works?
JR: Yeah, I’ll give you an example. This is a real funny one. Before we were a remote company, if someone new started, we bought them a computer. That sounds like a reasonable thing to do, right? “Okay you now have a desk and you have a computer and here’s a key to the office. So you can come in every day, you can go sit down at a desk with your computer. And, by the way, if you need software, we’ll put it on the computer for you.”
Now we’re a remote company, and when we were four people, five people or six people, okay, we could potentially buy a computer and ship it to someone. But then if they were to leave the company, they would have to ship the computer back and we would have to figure out where the software license goes to and so forth.
We made the decision that we’re just going to give everyone a stipend when they start working at ignite. If they want to use their own computer that they already have, and it’s new and that’s fine, they can use it, and they can use the stipend for a comfortable chair or decorations for their office at home. We just said, “Here’s a $1,500 home office set up stipend. You can do whatever you want with it, as long as it’s somewhat related to your work setup.” Everyone bought their own computers, mostly Macs, we’re a Mac group, or, if they had one already, bought a new ergonomic chair or a screen or something else.
The other day, someone said, “My computer’s not working. What do I do?” We were like, “I don’t know. I guess get it fixed.” We never thought about, okay, yes, people can use their own stuff, but what happens when they’re responsible for doing work, but their own stuff breaks? Who’s responsible? We didn’t have a policy around that. So now we’re thinking through like, okay, what is our technology policy, and how do we budget for that? Even though it’s someone’s computer, but they’re doing work on it for ignite, we have to make sure they’re set up to do that work, and we don’t want them to have a lot of downtime. If they go to the Apple store and they can’t take them for three days, and then the computer is going to be inside the Apple store for another two days, now we’ve lost five days of productivity because we didn’t outline our policy. What do we do when someone’s computer isn’t working?
A very small example, but, as we grow, we have to start to think about processes. Being a remote company too has its benefits, but also this is new territory for a lot of companies. Even policies that were built in the past now have to be changed or updated. These are all interesting things but definitely affect the company.
CD: Yeah. So in thinking through this example, tell me a little bit about how the leadership team has worked together in order to solve it. Did it show up as an agenda item in a leadership team meeting or were all five minds on the leadership team coming together to solve this particular one? And is that also the way that you want to operate?
JR: Yeah. So in this particular case, it was one of the leadership team members that had the thought, so it’s a little bit easier to handle. My initial gut reaction was, “Just get it fixed and send us the receipt and we’ll fix it.” And then someone else on the leadership team said, “Okay, whoa, hold on a minute. If that’s the case, then now we’re saying anyone has any issue with any of their technology. Is there a cap? How much are we going to pay? If it’s their computer or their phone, where do we draw the line?”
We dealt with the issue at hand, because we needed to get this one computer fixed. But we now have a team of people looking at our handbook and building out policies and thinking through with our HR. We have an HR company that we use for all of our payroll that supplies resources and language.
What started out as a very small question or issue has grown now to be something larger. We meet every day, or we have a huddle every day, and someone on our team keeps a running list of things and we just go through them. Every day we check things off and then we go to the next thing. Basically, that becomes our agenda for our leadership huddles. That part has been working fairly well. We do get stuff done. We go through things, we don’t just need to just talk.
I think when we first started the leadership team, we knew we had to meet, but we didn’t know what do we do during these meetings? And then someone rightfully so said, “I think we need to have an agenda and anything that comes to someone on the leadership team, if they can’t handle it on their own and it needs to be discussed as a group, we’re going to add it.” We use Asana as our internal software and we keep a board there. If anyone wants to, at any point during the day, they can add something there. When we meet the next day, we start going through the list. Now, is that the right way to go? As we grow, we’ll probably have to adapt, because there are some things that maybe certain teams can deal with and we don’t need to use the whole leadership team time. For now I think, in the stage we’re in, we need to really meet every day and go through issues that come up.
CD: Yeah. I love that. I think what you’ve arrived at is a major piece of what entrepreneurs try and solve in terms of accountability, is you essentially created a centralized record that is transparent and that anyone across the team can contribute into a unified list of these open-ended items. I think some might put a whole lot of process in terms of filling out the Asana task or the card a certain way so it gets prioritized adequately, for some it’s just listing the sentence or just like, “Okay, this is the name of the issue.” I love that methodology in terms of being able to just prioritize things on the fly. As more gets added, you’re able to essentially address your agenda in terms of order of urgency, order of priority, biggest issues, and that keeps you all rolling and in sync. I love that.
JR: Yeah. That’s been our way of getting through any issues that come in. I always try to encourage our team to think about solutions as well as problems. Listing things that are coming up, but not necessarily knowing how to address them becomes a little bit more challenging. Ultimately, then, it comes back to me to figure out the solution. And I try to ask the question, “Okay, I see you brought this to the team. What would you think that a possible outcome could be? What are a couple of ways we can go about this? There are going to be pros and cons of each direction.” I’m trying to get the leadership team to think as a solution-oriented team, rather than just, “I’m going to put all these problems on this list and then someone else will try to figure it out.
CD: Someone else meaning you.
JR: Usually. Or at least I need to give direction. Sometimes I do need to be the one to give direction. There are some problems that do need my attention, but I also know when you’re on a leadership team you’re now in this circle of trust. We need to think individually, too, about how we’re going to contribute and come to the table with solutions, not just issues. This is a learning process for everyone.
CD: I think you’re touching on a major insight in this shift from being an individual contributor into being a leader of a team. Sometimes, I run into founders and business owners, even managers and directors of teams, that think that we must have all the answers ourselves. People almost look up to us in a way like, “Okay, I can’t solve this. If I see a problem, Jeff’s going to figure it out.” Essentially, they take the problem and put the mental burden on a founder, the leader of the team, to essentially solve that problem.
But I think you’ve structured it in a way to set expectations in a much more scalable and team-centric way, asking, “Instead of necessarily bringing a problem, have you also thought about a solution?” I think that slight and subtle shift can really help teams grow because it forces the pain of solving the problem to be more decentralized across more individuals and elevates their ability to critically think and solve higher level problems, which is why you brought them together as a leadership team in the first place. This helps ignite to elevate and move the entire firm forward, as opposed to just doing the sum of all of the client work. I really love that. And I don’t think it’s necessarily an intuitive answer for many entrepreneurs because again, there’s almost a mindset sometimes in believing that we have to be the hero.
JR: We have to solve every problem.
CD: We have to solve the problem ourselves. I really want the structure that you put in place. If you have one more minute, I’d love for you to share one message with other entrepreneurial people out there about what’s going on in business.
JR: What I’ve found so helpful in the last year is talking to other CEOs one-on-one. When I reach out to someone like, “Hey, I would love to pick your brain on something.” If it’s another CEO, those conversations have been extremely valuable to me, more than I ever imagined.
I would say one piece of advice—I have to follow my own advice too sometimes—is to sync up and find other folks who are on your same trajectory. Your challenge may be something that they’ve solved, but they may have a challenge that you’ve figured out, and those moments can be really dynamite. That’s something that I’ve learned.
CD: Awesome. I love that Jeff. Thank you so much. Thanks so much for your time.
JR: I’m sorry I’ve got to cut it off, but we’ll catch up again soon I hope.
CD: We’ll catch up again soon, and thank you. You’ll hear from me shortly.
JR: All right. Thank you, Chase.
CD: Cool, peace out.