A Conversation with Melissa Newton

Following is an edited transcript of a conversation between Mary Ann O’Brien, OBI Creative Founder and CEO, and Melissa Newton, Executive Vice President of Talent and Organizational Goals for Olsson

The Importance of Thinking of Your Employees as Customers 

Mary Ann O’Brien

One of the things you and I have talked about over the years is understanding the importance of how you think about employees. The brands who think of their employees as customers tend to gain a competitive edge that those who only think of their employees as employees don’t. How do you think of employees? And how have you tried to understand what their needs are?  

Importantly, how does what you know about your employees, not only increase employee engagement, but also make a difference in your ability as a brand to connect effectively with your customers and attract ideal audiences? 

Melissa Newton  

When I started at Olsson almost 30 years ago, we had 70 employees. Now we’re nearing 1,700. As we were looking forward to our Vision 2024, at the time, we talked a lot about was our employees being the center of everything that we do. We met our goals ahead of schedule and putting our employees at the heart of our decisions was a big reason for that. 

We recently rolled out our vision for 2030 to our employees and the number one message we heard from them was that they didn’t want to lose our culture. 

Over the next nine years, we plan to double our employees. Preserving our culture through that growth will be critical to maintaining our success. We understand that intentionality is necessary to for that.  

We are very intentional about the types of employees that we hire that fit our values, and the culture and the things that we really believe in. And we hire people that deliver phenomenal service to our clients. And that’s extremely important to us.  

Employee Autonomy Translates Into Strong Culture, Customer Satisfaction 

Mary Ann O’Brien

One of the reasons I love Olsson is that your business is all about the employees. And that’s not what we find in every case, when we go in and help clients kind of figure out their messaging or their positioning or their branding.  

We actually got to ask your employees, you know, what mattered to them and what map out how they saw that alignment. And it was very evident in the data that you guys have an amazing culture.  

And that is rooted in your employee-first mindset and really allowing them autonomy to run the businesses the way they feel is best. Can you talk a little bit about how you navigate that freedom organizationally? 

Melissa Newton 

We know the ability to make decisions is an important tenet of our culture, so we give our employees a lot of autonomy to make decisions in the best interest of our clients.  

That’s something that they value greatly. And they don’t have to go through a lot of hierarchy. We also have employees that are highly competitive, and they like to be successful, and they like to work for a successful company. We offer autonomy while also holding people accountable.  

We expect to deliver strong performance. We expect to connect with our clients. We expect to deliver responsive, timely service. And so those are things that are really important to us.  

The other thing our employees appreciate is the team environment we foster. We have business units throughout Olsson that can number anywhere from 10 to 50 individuals. And the reason they love that so much is that they are connected. They have strong relationships with those employees. And they get to make their own decisions. So they decide who they’re going to hire, they decide what clients they’re going to serve, they decide what projects they’re going to work on. So they have a lot of autonomy and that and that really, they find value in that.  

And so those are the things as we continue to move forward, is just really being thoughtful about what motivates what drives our people. Our people are incredibly smart, kind and compassionate. And I just firmly believe when you give them the autonomy to do their job, they will deliver amazing work. 

How Thinking of Your Employees as Customers Helps Reinforce a Strong Brand 

Mary Ann O’Brien  

In the past, brands used to be about what you said they were. Today it’s about how you behave. Every interaction you have with your customers adds to the perception of who you are, what you are and why you matter as a brand. In a very real sense, your brand is the experience you provide.  

A brand is a perception that’s out in the marketplace. It’s based on lots of different interactions. So, as you think about projecting the brand that you want Olsson to be known for, how does how you take care of your employees align with that? 

Melissa Newton 

When I think about brand, I think about the employee experience, and I think about the client experience. I think about what it feels like to work here, and what it feels like to work with us.  

Our clients, like our people, are very friendly. We’re very outgoing. And it was interesting, we had hired an individual in our Kansas City office a few months ago and invited them to d come to Lincoln to meet our executive team. And when they left, they said, they were so impressed, because every executive actually shook their hand, introduced themselves and asked how they were doing. And at their previous employer, when they met their executive team, they never even acknowledged them.  

That was amazing to me. But it was also it represents who we are.  

Our clients tell us we’re very friendly, that they like working with us, and that we build strong relationships with them. We’re also very smart and know how to do really solid work for the right reasons.  

So that experience that was very meaningful to me, because that’s, that’s something I think I take sometimes for granted. I think it’s also evident in the replay work we get. Every year, we track the repeat revenue that we have. And in 2020 to 2021, we were at 92 percent repeat revenue.  

We have a client services team that does interviews and debriefs with our clients to just ask them why they like working with Olsson and it’s always the people. It’s the friendliness and the fact that we listen.  

We also value creativity. We nurture it in our employees and that translates into innovative thinking and breakthrough service on behalf of our clients, in pursuit of their best interests.  

So when you walk in, for example, in our Lincoln office where I work, you know, a lot of times people will say, ‘well, that doesn’t look like an engineering firm. It looks more like an architecture firm.’ 

We designed it that way because our employees told us they wanted natural light and collaboration centers. So we carry our care for our employees and emphasis on creativity through everything we do, including how we designed our office. 

Share a time you had to make a courageous decision that positively impacted your business. 

Mary Ann O’Brien 

Just like you, I love business. My grandpa was a businessman, my dad was businessman. And we talked business all the time. But one thing that I didn’t know about business until I got into business was that it takes a lot of courage. And so I was wondering if you have a story that you’re comfortable sharing, about a decision you made professionally that required courage.  

Melissa Newton 

One of the most challenging times in my career was back in 2008 through 2010, when the market really fell, and we had been growing significantly. We had opened offices in Phoenix, Denver, Minneapolis and elsewhere. And a lot of our work was really centered in the private markets. We did a lot of land development work. And one day that work just stopped.  

We had been diversifying into more public markets, but we didn’t get that done quick enough. It  really took a lot of courage to continue to grow, because we didn’t want to stop hiring great talent. But we also had to downsize some areas, and we had some offices that didn’t have work. So that was a very challenging time for me personally, and for our organization, to have to make some of those moves.  

We spent a lot of time making sure we were transparent with employees about where our business was, and what that looked like. And it worked out well. But those are difficult things as leaders that you’re  sometimes faced with. So that was a very, very, very challenging time in my career. And, and also as a whole, that was probably one of our most challenging times as a company. 

Mary Ann O’Brien  

That absolutely requires bravery. We have to use our brains, instincts and experiences to get through those challenges so we can emerge on the other side with more wisdom.  

Melissa, thank you so much for talking with us.  

Explore OBI Creative for more marketing insights: 

Mary Ann O’Brien LinkedIn

Learn more about Olsson:  

Olsson LinkedIn

Melissa Newton LinkedIn


    Join the mailing list to receive monthly updates from Mary Ann O'Brien.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.