14 West's breakup with 'mayhem' was the catalyst for more collaborative tech teams and happier employees - Technical.ly

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14 West’s breakup with ‘mayhem’ was the catalyst for more collaborative tech teams and happier employees

The Baltimore company's tech services vertical employed a multi-year, step-by-step strategy to improve its strategy and execution, leadership, and employee engagement initiatives — and it’s working.
At the end of 2020, 14 West tech leadership knew it was time to restrategize its strategic focus and talent retention. One year later, Jennifer Realo, the chief of staff for 14 West’s tech services vertical, is reflecting on a “transformative year” in 2021.

14 West, a business services firm with about 300 employees based in Baltimore, suffered a lot of talent pain in 2020. Realo said the company’s challenges were worsened by the effects of the “Great Resignation” and ongoing challenges caused by the pandemic, such as the shift to remote management. Teams were in flux as people left for other opportunities, but the pace of work never slowed, and Realo worried the employee experience was suffering.

“We knew we were going to have to be hyper-focused on what we needed to get done to support businesses and their growth in the year ahead, but in order to do that, we needed to work more effectively across teams and foster closer connections with every one of our team members,” she said. “That was going to be critical to be able to retain talent.”

In 2021, Realo said 14 West’s revitalized management style shines through “the level of engagement, passion and the excitement that employees feel that I’ve never seen before.”

So, how did they change the culture so dramatically?

14 West has a variety of silos that serve the affiliated Agora companies, a collection of media companies that publish a variety of financial, health, travel and special-interest books and newsletters. 14 West’s tech arm comprises about 35 teams and about 200 employees.

She began rethinking strategy, execution and talent management for 14 West tech in 2019, when she joined the company. Prior to 14 West, Realo spent most of her career with entrepreneurs, leading teams to deliver on their vision. Most recently, she ran her own consulting business helping small businesses optimize their performance.

‘An ideal-state vision’

Jennifer Realo. (Courtesy photo)

Her first baby step toward 14 West’s “transformation” in 2021 was implementing objectives and key results soon after she joined the team. OKRs, popularized by Google, are a two-part goal-setting framework: First, you set an objective you’d like to accomplish. Then, you identify timebound, key results that help you accomplish it. By introducing each team to OKRs, Realo said they were primed for understanding a more strategic goal-setting process invoked later.

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“Previously, we were not great at setting strategy and objectives and having a clear focus,” Realo said. “Employees felt like priorities were constantly changing, and it was a little bit of mayhem. So, yes, part of my role was to help establish that structure and that discipline within the organization and executive team.”

With the groundwork set after Realo’s arrival in 2019, 14 West had one primary impetus for real change: “an ideal-state vision” set by 14 West COO Daryl Berver in early 2021, or an idea of what would be delivered for their clients and how exactly their teams would look functioning at their highest level. To achieve that, achieving team transformation in 2021 required a three-pronged approach:

  1. Setting and deploying a clear strategy
  2. Ensuring teams understood and aligned with that strategic vision
  3. Creating stronger leaders and connections with each employee

These plans are empty without consistent actions, Realo said, which is why 14 West tech employed an integrated planning process aligned with the Agile software development methodology. This project management style breaks big goals down step by step and encourages leaders to effectively work through cross-team dependencies and manage obstacles as a unified team.

Each department and team was made aware of the incremental steps they had to make. To keep all managers on the same page, Realo said they meet weekly to discuss ongoing hurdles. This allows 14 West tech teams, who previously struggled with communication, to lean on each other.

Realo said 14 West’s work requires agile workers who are eager to get their hands dirty. Encouraging team members to collaborate will only strengthen the company, since each individual passion is already significantly energized to get the work done.

“There’s a sense of community that I’ve never felt before here,” she said, “and it’s just phenomenal.”

Getting employees on board

While strengthening the teams overall was a goal, Realo knew 14 West needed each employee on board. At biweekly meetings with their respective team leaders, employees discuss competency models that clearly establish what their current responsibilities are and what they can do to achieve more seniority or take advantage of a new career opportunity within 14 West. This sets clear career expectations for employees and supports them as they continue to grow personally and professionally.

And it’s not just the employees who receive constructive criticism — executive leadership does as well. Realo said employees regularly fill out pulse surveys and meet with leaders to discuss their day-to-day experiences.

“Candidly, my favorite feedback is when it’s constructive or somewhat negative,” Realo said. “That means I’ve got something I can act on. It’s great to hear positivity, but I really want the meaty stuff that we can just continually improve on.”

14 West tech began to employ these changes in 2019 and plans to continue to iterate moving forward. People are ever-changing, meaning Realo’s work is never done.

“I’m so excited by the prospect of building these teams out,” she said. “It’s really hard to find a place where you find a special group of people like this. It’s a phenomenal workplace and group of people, and it is so rewarding to see people feeling really enthusiastic and energized. We’re heading in the right direction.”

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