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Owning The New Normal – An Interview With Extensis CEO Toby Martin

Tara Storozynsky
February 3, 2021

Nearly one year into a global pivot of every facet of our lives, businesses are starting to find their stride in this new reality. We can move past reactivity, embrace optimization, and lean into the benefits of remote work. I asked Extensis CEO Toby Martin what he thinks creatives and leaders can do to thrive, and what this next year will bring.

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me. We’re officially out of 2020 now. In your conversations with partners and customers, what changes have you observed as we have stepped into this new year?

Last year, we all realized how centralized management of things and people is often too challenging to be rewarding, both personally and professionally. This realization is actually a win in the long run.

More and more teams are being encouraged to come up with process improvements to support them. Prior to lockdown, no one could have foreseen the challenges (opportunities, if you’re like me!) that awaited us. In other words, now that we know what is wrong in creative processes, it’s on everyone from each role and department to solve, which should help speed the iterative process of improving.

We’re now at a point where the fatigue has been somewhat supplanted by optimism that the end is near, and people have begun actively planning for the future. By looking forward, which is a challenge if your business is still struggling to stay afloat, you can start to lay out the groundwork of what your desired state is after we ‘come out of’ this current situation.

With the rise in remote work, in addition to schools being closed in many places, we’re seeing so many individuals struggle with work-life balance like never before. We have so many creative customers who are used to diving all-in on projects and working long hours. Do you have any advice for them as they navigate this next year?

Creatives tend to be truly passionate about their work. When your couch is your office, finding the right balance is a struggle, and it’s easy to start putting in longer and longer hours. You may feel more “productive” in the beginning, but this all-in approach just isn’t sustainable.

My advice to them is the same that I would give their bosses and their clients — invest some time to examine the processes and tools in use.

We talk often about people, systems, processes, support, and partners as the contributing factors to success. Identifying a new wrinkle that was previously unconsidered is how we can really work balance into the equation. So, take the time to monitor how the work really gets done. Look for time inefficiencies even more so now than you would have in the past.

Here at Extensis, we place tremendous emphasis on work-life balance, which has led us to continue investments in a new series of tools. One of top priorities has been supporting the teams and removing redundancy of tasks. We’ve had a huge return on investment, but even more importantly, our teams now have more bandwidth to innovate.

We all pay our teams to creatively problem-solve. Rather than just investing in managing your employees, invest in freeing up their time. Freedom is invigorating and leads to valuable creative results. By giving your teams more freedom in their processes, they will be able to reflect upon and further improve those same processes. (It’s easy to focus too much on the tools and too little on the processes, which is something I try to flip every time it comes up. After all, good tools with bad processes just waste money more quickly.)

Things have changed so much, but instead of seeing things slow down, we’re seeing businesses experimenting more often. They’re trying new distribution models and leaning on social media to be more vocal about their core values. How do you think this will play out for creative professionals?

I’ll start with an example here – after 24 years in the same office space, Extensis is going to finally be moving this spring. The move was brought about by the changing workforce dynamics of permanent and hybrid remote working. Creatives are going through a similar shift because the old models just don’t work in this new world. While so much may still seem uncertain, take a moment to reflect on how many of these changes are so welcome! We need to keep moving forward and leaning into change in order to maximize the value of this new work-from-home paradigm.

Frustration with the older ways being default (hello print format, or non-mobile first design!) has wasted enough time. This evolution of work is an opportunity to keep identifying ways to improve.

When we clear out our office, gone is paperwork, file cabinets, physical rack-mount servers, and other vestiges of the past. We’ve taken advantage of this situation to clean up our processes, so let’s all clean up the figurative workspaces at the same time. After all, there’s no going back to the old ways — and would you really want to?

Here at Extensis, we adapted pretty quickly to safe, remote working in March of 2020. Why do you think we were so successful?

For us it’s been keeping the established culture going strong. I would not want to be in a start-up or trying to explosively grow and hire tons of new people right now. Without a strong foundation and connections amongst your team, pivoting to remote work could be extremely challenging.

That’s not to say that we haven’t made changes to better support remote work, like many of you. Slack, Zoom, Salesforce, and many of our other tools are built for distributed teams, so the tools absolutely play a part, but they are also only as good as the team using them. People, then tools...

Another piece of our success is renewed communication, and how that has had to evolve. With all of the different communication methods out there, it’s easy to use them wrong (synchronous vs. asynchronous) or to have electronic conversations when you should pick up the phone. We frequently message the entire company and gather teams more often than we did in person since you lose the random drop-ins and other ways to move info. Tools allow it, but the investment from the teams in being honest, humble, and relying on teamwork is what makes it all work.

A lot of people are talking about the “future of work” and the next “normal.” What are some trends that you think we’ll see this next year — and beyond?

It’s been over-dissected, but remote workforces are not going anywhere. Those who are simply treading water before the ‘return to normal’ are going to be in deep trouble. Even the most extroverted among us have to admit that we enjoy saving time on our commutes, the reduced need for dry cleaning (who doesn’t love working in sweatpants now and then?) and being able to get some exercise on our lunch breaks. These differences make working from home compelling, flexible — and here to stay.

I personally was not a proponent of working remotely before we did so, but given how well Extensis has adapted, the teams here have shown me a better way. So, we’re all in!

I also think there may be large-scale workplace demographic shifts, which are a welcome change that is years overdue in many areas. When you look at diversity of your workforce or pockets of talent geographically (think Bay Area), this problem can seem insurmountable if you’re not in the hotspot. However, that barrier is only in your mind and you can absolutely tap into a more diverse pool of talent from anywhere now. Access to jobs is no longer limited to physical distance. It’s increasingly related to performance, which should open up many, many opportunities for diversity, improved performance, and democratization of jobs that would have been unthinkable in the past. I’ve heard the term “intellectual refugee,” but I prefer “intellectual tourist.”

The only consideration I would add when hiring remote workers is the maintenance of culture. You may find a really talented remote worker, but you still need to consider culture-add, or lead to greater challenges. Remote hiring is not a panacea, but it is another option that smart businesses will leverage strategically.

It seems like technology adoption has grown in leaps and bounds. One McKinsey Global Survey found that companies have accelerated digitization of customer, supply-chain, and internal operations by up to four years. It’s an exciting time for companies that provide digital solutions, but there’s also a lot of work ahead. How are you and your core team planning to meet growing demands and conquer this next year?

Great question, and one that’s confronting every proactive leader. At first, we all had to react, but now that we’re so far along into this economic downturn, it’s too late if you’re just starting to think this way.

At Extensis, we’re re-doubling efforts of assertively pivoting to new models of customer success optimization. We’re training teams in new ways of working with our customers, adapting our solutions to have more intelligence built in, and investing big money in tools like Salesforce and Pendo. We’re keeping up the investment pace. We also look at the time we have now as an opportunity to experiment and learn since we have such stability in our business, which is a luxury.

For those history buffs, go back in time and read up on what Andy Grove did with Intel during downturns – he invested in new fabs (plants for production) on the knowledge that the situation would pass. Go further back and look at Roosevelt and the post-Depression years, or even 2009 and the fiscal cliff. The only way forward is to leverage the strengths you have and go all in on recovery to plan the best path forward.

I’m optimistic that Extensis will emerge stronger from this and I operate every day with this assumption in mind. I welcome each and every one of our customers to join us for the ride!

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