Gary Vaynerchuk: Winner of the ISO 10018 Honorary CEO Citation for Quality People Management
Gary Vaynerchuk, VaynerMedia
This profile of Gary Vaynerchuk, the CEO of VaynerMedia, a fast-growing New York-based digital marketing agency, continues ESM’s new Quality People Management CEO series honoring chief executives at organizations that base their success on a strategic and systematic approach to engaging all stakeholders—customers, distribution partners, sales and nonsales employees, vendors and communities. The Honorary CEO Citation singles out leaders with a strategic focus on Human Capital Management in order to provide CEOs, boards of directors and other executives a new paradigm for 21st century people-centric leadership. In recognition of Gary Vaynerchuk’s accomplishments, ICEE has awarded the VaynerMedia CEO our fourth ISO 10018 Honorary CEO Citation for Quality People Management.*
(For profiles of the Enterprise Engagement strategies of other CEOs, go to: A CEO’s Guide to Engagement Across the Enterprise).
By Bruce Bolger
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The sole purpose of the ISO 10018 CEO Citation for Quality People Management is to profile CEOs who, through information available from the public record, demonstrate a strategic and systematic approach to engaging all stakeholders—employees, customers, distribution partners, vendors, communities--as part of their core management principles. Ironically, most of the CEOs with these management principles rarely talk about them—as if they are happy to let their competitors manage their organizations the old-fashioned way: more or less command-and-control, top-down management, with a reactive and ad hoc approach to engaging people, and a poorly defined culture rife with internal siloes. For anyone who follows Gary Vaynerchuk, CEO of VaynerMedia, on social media, this CEO makes it his business to share his vision of how to succeed through people to anyone who will listen.
VaynerMedia is a privately held digital media company that is part of Vaynerchuk’s Vayner X holding company that has stakes in multiple businesses. Founded in 2009, it has grown rapidly to over 800 employees, with many well-known accounts. In our evaluation, the company had two strikes against it, unimpressive Glassdoor.com
scores and the lack of any way to contact a human by telephone.
Some might ask why the ISO 10018 Honorary CEO Citation could go to a CEO with poor scores on Glassdoor.com—only 36% would recommend a friend to work there and only 48% rank Vaynerchuk highly. First, Glassdoor.com is only one of about 10 criteria we use to select CEO candidates, since there are so many specific reasons why one company or CEO would get rankings different from another and because the self-selecting survey methodology used by Glassdoor is not considered a scientific assessment of actual sentiments at a given organization. The second reason is that the purpose of the ISO 10018 CEO Citation is to highlight CEOs with a clear, documentable track-record of having a strategic and systematic approach to engaging all stakeholders—not to suggest that this CEO is perfect or that people management skills are the only determining factor of success. Yes, people are critical to success, but organizations can run into many unforeseen economic, competitive, or growth life-cycle issues that can strain the beams of the ship to a near breaking point, despite a CEO’s best intentions. Also, while a focus on people is a competitive advantage, the ability to succeed without great leadership skills explains why so many CEOs see no need to have a strategic and systematic approach to engaging all stakeholders.
As to the inability to find a human at a company that’s supposed to be the essence of being human, this cannot be a disqualifying oversight at a business-to-business media company with a semi-celebrity CEO who many people want to contact, not to mention probably thousands of companies that want to sell him and his company media and other services.
A CEO With the Most Public Commitment to People
We have selected Gary Vaynerchuk because almost no CEO anywhere is more out-front and willing to share his or her strategic focus on customers, employees, and communities. Unlike most CEOs, who remain below the social media radar, Vaynerchuk is a social media firehose of content across almost every social media platform and format—written, video, face-to-face, infographics, animation, etc. In fact, unless one enjoys the super-high energy, arms-flailing, torrent-of-talk approach New York City residents live with every day, Vaynerchuk’s social media (and perhaps personal) presence might be overwhelming or even off-putting to some with a calmer nature. Given that most CEOs take the exact opposite approach in terms of public advocacy for putting people first, we give Vaynerchuk extra credit for his strategy of making his focus on helping people the fundamental essence of his brand strategy. On top of that, Vaynerchuk is among the few in the advertising field who ever even talk about employees. Although his company does not have a brand engagement practice to help his clients foster internal engagement, Vaynerchuk makes employee engagement a regular part of his story.
As explained here
, the ISO 10018 Honorary CEO Citation for Quality People Management, is not an ISO 10018 certification for the company. CEOs are selected on the basis of how well their publicly verifiable actions or statements align with the basic principles of the ISO standards and Enterprise Engagement: having a strategic and systematic approach to engaging all stakeholders in a common brand mission. Here is what we found about Vaynerchuk that warrants this ISO 10018 Honorary CEO Citation.
VayerMedia Management Principles
Success is not the only criteria for selection of this honorary ISO 10018 CEO citation, but it doesn’t hurt. Vaynerchuk’s story of serial entrepreneurship starting in his childhood is well known to those who follow him, and wine lovers admire him for having turned a small family business into a $60 million e-commerce retailer known as Wine Library at WineLibrary.com
. In 2009, Vaynerchuck and his younger brother founded VaynerMedia, which by scoring early clients such as the New York Jets and NHL, grew rapidly so that it now represents leading consumer, beverage, and other nationally known accounts, employing over 800 people who will be working in the company’s new offices in New York City’s recently opened eye-popping Hudson Yards complex.
The importance of strategy.
Vaynerchuk’s social media presence suggests a rapid-fire approach to business, but Vaynerchuk regularly addresses the importance of strategy. “The strategy and smarts I put into my businesses every day are not something that I talk about enough with my community. I disproportionately give credit to the 17-hour work days, when working smart in those 17 hours is just as important. When I didn't even own a computer, why did I want to launch one of the first ecommerce websites
? Why did I consciously decide not to make a catalog when everyone else was doing direct mail? Why did I give email marketing all my attention when it was barely a blip on the radar? And what about maybe the most important decision I made for my career: Why did I decide to jump on YouTube and start a wine review show
when no one was really producing YouTube shows? All these things involved hard work, obviously. But the hard work was the byproduct of the full commitment to smart strategy. I don't pay attention to what my competitors or peers are doing, because I trust my own smarts and intuition one-trillion percent. I hustle 24/7/365 because I know that what I'm executing against is what will work for me and businesses in the current marketplace. The game plan will work as long as I put in the work.”
A focus on culture.
In multiple articles and blog posts, Vaynerchuk talks repeatedly about company culture. In an interview with CNBC
, he said, “Great company culture isn't about having free snacks in your cafeteria or a foosball table…You build culture by actually talking to people, one by one, and understanding what they care about. It all comes down to being emotionally intelligent. If a CEO tells people he cares about them, for example, but then looks the other way when certain employees are mean to everyone, he's basically sending the message that he doesn't care about how the rest of his employees feel.” The CNBC interviewer observes, “If Vaynerchuk is right, and we're heading full speed into an era where the ‘human element’ is our most important resource, then his advice extends to those beyond CEOs and business owners. No matter what age you are or what demographic cohort you're in, emotional intelligence is the one skill to master if you want to be successful.”
On authentic people-centric leadership.
Explaining the agency’s “people first” focus, Vaynerchuk writes
, “A big part of being a leader is being the bigger person – in every situation. It means giving even when you don’t get anything in return sometimes. It means taking ownership and accepting blame. You can’t simply impose your will because you’re now the boss. There will be plenty of times where you will need to swallow your pride and do what’s in the best interest of the team. This means empowering those around you to do their jobs, but it also means something else: you need to be able to accept that certain things are your fault. At the end of the day, you’re the one leading the charge, so you need to be willing to accept responsibility for your successes, and more importantly, your failures. It all falls on you. No one likes a boss that passes the buck to an employee in a tough situation. If you take the blame, your people will know that you’ve got their back – no matter what the situation is.”
The role of emotional intelligence. Vaynerchuk writes
, “Luckily, through social media and the internet…You can create and distribute content, you can search employees by title or name, you can identify customers by geo-location, or individuals who like products that fit your niche. All the information is there, you just have to go online and figure it out. I’m as bullish as anybody on AI and CRM (customer relationship management) and message bots but those things are only going to put you on third base. It’s your emotional intelligence and tact and unscalable human effort that takes you home.”
Lead from behind. “Most new managers think that becoming a manager is the ‘graduation.’ Truth is, it’s the reverse. Leaders work for their employees… I genuinely believe that the best leadership qualities are maternal, not paternal. It’s a lot more appropriate and helpful to have a caring, empathetic, understanding personality when you’re a leader than something stern, paternal, or aggressive.”
Recruitment. “Jerks destroy culture. Emotional intelligence matters above everything else. Then, I care about the actual tangible skills candidates have. It’s not even close. If someone’s a jerk, I won’t hire him or her – even if their numbers are phenomenal. It’s similar to sports—a team that sticks together will end up beating a team of superstars that were put together for one season (over the long term)….Another big piece of advice I give is hiring people that complement your strengths. If you’re a visionary type of person, hire someone who is obsessed with Excel (spreadsheets) and freaks out if you’re a minute late. Hire someone who loves details. A lot of leaders get caught because they hire friends that are similar to them but aren’t what they actually need.”
The ROI of nice. “Truth is, you could have the greatest HR tools and software of all time to monitor how your employees are doing – but if you don’t actually care about your people at a deep level, you will lose. None of those tools are going to do anything. As a leader, it’s my job to give my employees 51% of the value in the relationship. But I’m not Mother Teresa. It’s just not practical. If you’re using negativity as a way to extract value from employees or people on your team, they’ll build resentment towards you and it’ll kill your culture long term. I want to create a conversation around the practicality of positivity, kindness, and empathy within my organization. I’m not just saying it to be ideological—instilling those characteristics and traits as part of your culture has significant long-term impact for your business.”
, “Most people who say that kindness is a weakness are giving with expectation. When your kindness is loaded with an ask on the back end, people can smell it from a mile away. You’re not actually being nice, you’re just using kindness as a disguise to get what you want from the relationship. If you give with a hidden agenda, your kindness will feel fake—and people will notice…When you give without expectation, you’re happy no matter what. You can’t be taken advantage of because you’re playing a different game. Even if I provide all the value in the relationship and I get nothing back in the short term, the worst-case scenario is that I had a positive impact on somebody through my actions. As a human being, that makes me feel really good.”
The Role of Human Resources at VaynerMedia
At VaynerMedia, Claude Silver
, the company’s Chief Heart Officer, is No. 2 on the organization chart. “And if there’s ever a debate on what’s good for our employees vs. what’s good for our bottom line, she’ll win that debate nine times out of ten,” says Vaynerchuk. In an article about her role, Silver writes: “The branding of HR is a lot worse than we’d like it to be. It’s why I rebranded our department name from HR to People and Experience team. Culture is a texture. It’s a vibe. It’s a feel. To me, good culture means spreading kindness. It’s about connection, people caring about one another. It’s about people having self-awareness, so they care about other people as well. In a nutshell, culture is the heartbeat of a company. It’s something that lights up the entire system. If a company has great culture, it can be the backbone of their success. At VaynerMedia, the Chief Heart Officer role was created to scale Gary (Vaynerchuk.) As a very gifted salesperson, he’s always in demand. Whether meeting with the head of Toyota, Pepsi, or giving a keynote speech, or releasing a new book, his time is incredibly valuable. He needed someone else who could help him touch our employees. And to do that, he needed to find someone who shared the same language, had the same beliefs in people, someone who could ‘cut through the BS’ but came from a place of empathy.”
A holistic approach.
Asked about her role in HR in an interview with Recruiting Social
, Silver says “I’m not just looking at people. I‘m not just looking at benefits. I’m not just looking at recruiting. I’m not just looking at, quote-unquote ‘HR.’ I’m looking at all of that: as Chief Heart Officer. I’m Chief People Officer, Chief Talent Officer, Chief Culture Officer, Chief Inspiration Officer all together. It’s holistic.”
Assessment and surveys. Silver writes, “It’s my job to have a pulse on what every individual needs at our company. I need to know who needs to have a chat, who needs mentorship, who needs a team change, or anything else. When we have a glitch—even if it’s just a tiny blip, like someone having a bad day or a squabble with someone on their team—I want to know. It’s why I’m constantly reaching out and touching people, one-on-one, by text message, by emails, on quick phone calls. My days are normally made up of 15-20 one-on-one meetings. And by the time I get to the office at 9 am, I will probably have already sent out just as many texts so people know I’m thinking about them. I meet every single employee to help them remove their own roadblocks that they have in their own heads. I help them lean into their strengths, instead of getting bogged down by their weaknesses. The wonderful thing about managing the problems of 600+ employees is, human beings are very much alike. Even if you and I grew up differently, we both share a lot of the same concerns. We fundamentally have similar desires, fears, limiting beliefs, imposter syndromes, and more. At the core, the human experience is similar for all of us.
“So when I meet with employees, I listen to people with a non-judgmental ear. I collect information and I look for patterns, When I see patterns in specific departments or demographics within the company, I can go and confront these issues at scale…Some companies try to replace one-on-one interaction with surveys. We do use some surveys—I can send out email surveys or polls whenever I want. But if I’m sitting in the same room as you, I’m just going to get so much more by reading your body language and having some warmth and tenderness in the conversation.”
Professional development. According to Chief Heart Officer Silver, “Here, you can architect your own career to a large degree. Of course, we all have jobs that need to be done, but since we don’t practice micromanagement, people can do more than they’d do at a ‘normal’ job. Our open office and extensive cross-collaboration between departments helps a lot with that….My mission is to allow people to ‘bring their whole selves’ to work. When I sit down with people and have conversations on a day-to-day basis, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine. I’m dealing with people and life on life’s terms. There are a lot of things that happen in life, including some really hard things like personal tragedies. I have to remember that when I’m talking to people about their performance, their day, their purpose, or their achievements, it all has some kind of real life thrown into it. They’re thinking about their grandmother when they’re talking to me, or their friend who went through a tragedy.”
Well-being. Explains Silver
, “My wish is not for people to ‘compartmentalize’ their lives and leave their personal lives at home when they show up for work. My wish is for people to be real here, and for me to be real here. That means I need to bring my whole self to work. I need to show up as I am when I’m not at work. Another way to do this is by helping people develop more self-awareness and understanding of who they are in my one-on-ones. I’ll take people through a map of themselves, starting with a question like, ‘how does the team see you? What is the value you bring to the team?’ We’ll go through what they think their value is. If I have feedback to give them, that’s a perfect time for me to give feedback. When they say to me, for example, ‘I’m strategic’ — I’ll ask them, ‘what does ‘strategic’ mean?’ If they say, ‘I’m a problem solver,’ I’ll follow up with what I think being a problem solver at VaynerMedia means. If I make it my focus to understand what our people want, help them uncover who they are and what their strengths are, and then help them lean into those strengths, I know we’ll maintain great culture at VaynerMedia.”
How to put people first during rapid growth. “One of the biggest priorities for me is creating a space where people feel physically and emotionally safe,” she tells Recruiting Social. “So I’m always ensuring that individuals bring their whole self to work. We want people to come in as quirky as they are, and we want them to feel secure, confident, and amazing. How do you make someone feel secure? How do you make a stranger feel secure? By connecting with them and treating them like they’re your friend. And without a doubt, that’s one of the emphasis points that Gary (Vayerchuk) and I propagate.”
Innovation. “We try to make it so that creativity and ideas can come from everywhere. Someone on the finance team could have an idea for the next Mountain Dew campaign. Someone on the IT team could have an idea on how to improve our operations,” says Silver.
What to do with poor performers. Vaynerchuk advises, “There are different types of employees that you’ll have to deal with as a manager—underperforming employees that have strong talent, hardworking employees that aren’t talented, and more. The way I deal with them is strong communication…When you have the luxury of being the ‘judge and the jury’ as a manager, the pressure and the onus is on you. If there are employees at VaynerMedia that are highly talented but underperforming, it’s my fault for not creating the infrastructure for them to shine.”
Confronting siloes and office politics. Writes Silver, “You can’t lead with ego at VaynerMedia. There’s no place for that at this company. Instead…we instill empathy and kindness among our people. We want to help employees understand what other departments are going through. For example, account managers need to have empathy for what creatives are experiencing day to day. Like, how would a creative feel when their work is being subjectively criticized by a stranger? How would they feel when they’re pressured to be creative on a tight deadline? Same thing applies the other way around. What kind of pressure does an account manager face from clients? What kind of tradeoffs do they have to make?”
Recognition. “Spreading empathy really isn’t that difficult at an organization,” writes Silver, “especially when you have full autonomy to do it. Gary has given me full freedom on this, which definitely helps. One way I do this is by finding and showcasing ‘culture champions.’ Culture champions are employees who are really bought into what we’re doing here and live by our values. Another way I do it is by meeting with every employee one on one.”
Community. In her interview with Recruiting Social, Silver says, “So, how do you treat a stranger like a friend? You say hello to them. You organize cultural activities; from Wine Wednesday, to company kickball to Gay Pride mixers. You encourage Slack channels to be created for all communities that are interested; we have 160 Slack channels, around fitness, music, Pride, women, African Americans, The Bachelor, beer, bicycles, and VaynerMedia wellness. There’s even a Slack channel called #Vaynerds. And you know what the members do? On Thursday nights, they play Dungeons & Dragons here. I just found that out – that was music to me!”
Vaynerchuk’s Advice for CEOs
The importance of saying yes. “As a leader, I’m very yes-minded. I say yes to virtually everything. I say yes to everything because I look at business as a net-net game. Let’s say I say yes to 12 things, and seven succeed. On one side, I won seven times. On the other side, I have to deal with failures — including trying to make up for them because I may have let people down directly or indirectly through those losses. Even if it breaks down into those two categories, I will still take the seven wins that resulted from saying yes to everything rather than just trying to do two or three with the goal of getting them right.”
Give trust easily. “I give trust a lot easier than most CEOs would. I think it’s just smart. It’s offense. The reason most people don’t give trust is because they fear losses. They’re afraid of an employee messing up, failing, or creating short-term losses in business. But the truth is, at some point, you have to let your kid swim. You have to let your kid swing the bat. And for me, I’d rather do that sooner than later…It blows me away how many managers spend time trying to hire the ‘right person’—then micromanage them. Here’s how I think about management at work: 1. Don’t make people earn your trust—give trust up front, then take it away later if necessary. 2. Don’t get confused between legitimate criticism and your own subjective opinion about your employee’s creative output. 3. Letting people ‘roam free’ and expose themselves is the ultimate version of ‘scale’—and you need to be unafraid of losses in the short term to be able to achieve that.”
The impact of authentic content in marketing. “A lot of people make this mistake when they run ads on social media or create content: They go for the ‘ask’ in the same piece of content where they’re giving value. When you do that, you lose equity and brand with the end consumer.”
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