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27 min watch with captions and full transcript

When Glenn spoke to Claude Silver, Chief Heart Officer at Vaynermedia, at her New York office, the two dug deep into what sets the digital agency apart. Despite the agency’s fast-paced, zig-zagging atmosphere, Claude reveals how she builds a culture of compassion, empathy, and connection by leading with her heart.

In this episode of The Rebel Interviews series, Claude shares her tips for:

  • How to build a culture where employees feel safe
  • How to be front-footed about communication and connection
  • How to show empathy when employees bring their outside life to work


In this video, you’ll find more of Claude’s advice for building a rebel culture:
  • Connection plus trust plus empathy equals loyalty, longevity, resilience, and speed
  • Instead of work/life balance, focus on energy management
  • Scale yourself by creating culture carriers
  • Proactive communication builds connections
  • Constantly ask for feedback, and then listen for patterns and roadblocks
  • Rule of thumb: Absolutely no micromanagement
Our favourite quotes:

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 and I need to show up as I am outside.

Don't sweat the small stuff. 99% of those things don't matter. Focus on the 1% that matters… [and learn] to focus in on that 1% a lot quicker.

Claude's interview

GLENN ELLIOTT: Hi, it's Glenn here at rebelplaybook.com, and today we're here in New York with Claude Silver, Chief Heart Officer at Vaynermedia. Claude, thanks for welcoming us into your office.

CLAUDE SILVER: Glenn, it's great to have you. Lovely.

GLENN ELLIOTT: So nice to be here.

CLAUDE SILVER: Lovely to see you.

GLENN ELLIOTT: Chief Heart Officer. That's a great title. Tell us what that is.

CLAUDE SILVER: It is the greatest title. I'm so, so honored to have it. I oversee all people operations here. Anything that has to do with people and their experience. That starts with the candidacy and then all the way through their tenureship. It even, even continues when they leave this building and they go someplace else. Anything that has to do with people, I am all about. Whether or not it's problems, recruiting, resourcing, raises, growth and development, one on one coaching, bickering.

GLENN ELLIOTT: Drama and tears.

CLAUDE SILVER: Drama, tears, and joy. You name it, and culture.

GLENN ELLIOTT: You've got a unique spin on, I guess, the classic HR department, haven't you? The classic HR department might be quite reactive and in the background, but you're very much front-footed here on people, aren't you?

CLAUDE SILVER: I am. Well, I'm following Gary's lead. Gary is a people-first CEO. He's an operator, he's on the floor, and he is very much 24/7 available. I am, too. In order to scale Gary, I need to mimic Gary as much as I can but in Claude Silver style.

GLENN ELLIOTT: Is that even possible? Even could you do that?

CLAUDE SILVER: We don't even look alike. But in Claude Silver style. I am without a doubt 24/7 available. The door is always open. There are ways to contact me. But more than anything, I'm reaching out to people all day long. Whether or not I'm reaching out to them on DM, on social media, I'm on Slack, I'm on text, you name it. I'm sending out 40 to 50 random emails a day, just like, "Hey, let's catch up. How are you? Been thinking about you." Everything is about being on the front foot.

GLENN ELLIOTT: Vayner, is it 700 people now?

CLAUDE SILVER: 700+, yeah.

GLENN ELLIOTT: 700+. You've doubled in size in the last few years.

CLAUDE SILVER: Yes, we have.

GLENN ELLIOTT: With 700 people across, I think, is it five locations?


GLENN ELLIOTT: That reach out and that proactive people approach, it's a big job.

CLAUDE SILVER: Yeah, it's huge. It's massive.


CLAUDE SILVER: It's massive. I work for them, though. My job is to serve 700+ people. In doing that, I need to scale myself and create culture carriers, create people that I know and can trust that have the same sense of wonder when it comes to people, and the same sense of belief and purpose and joy. I know that they can carry that message through all of the offices in eight different time zones.

GLENN ELLIOTT: In eight different time zones. I guess you never stop.

CLAUDE SILVER: Never stop.

GLENN ELLIOTT: Never stop.

CLAUDE SILVER: Never stop.

GLENN ELLIOTT: Vayner's an agency. It's a social media first digital agency. You and I have both worked in agencies before, so we know what they're like. It's a cut and thrust, dog eat dog sometimes. A lot of stuff happens in an agency. What's it like? I'm sure you get asked this all the time. What's your day like? What's your week like? Let us into your world a little bit.

CLAUDE SILVER: Okay. No hour's ever the same.


CLAUDE SILVER: That is the one thing I will say. You've been here for three hours now and you've seen me zig and zag and disappear for minutes and minutes on end. My day is a mixture of things. I come in every single day with the same, same purpose in my mind, which is, "How do I make a safe space for people? How do I make where people can belong, that they feel psychologically and physically safe, and that they feel like they're ready to rock and roll?" That's my first thing.

GLENN ELLIOTT: That's cool.

CLAUDE SILVER: That's what I'm doing when I first walk in. In doing that, I'm walking the floor and I'm saying hi to people and I'm just getting a sense of.

GLENN ELLIOTT: You're just being present.

CLAUDE SILVER: Yeah, being present, making connections.

GLENN ELLIOTT: Being visible.

CLAUDE SILVER: Yeah. Connection, that's where you strike the match. Without connection, there's nothing.

GLENN ELLIOTT: It's interesting, 'cause your goal of providing that kind of safe space, making people feel safe so that they can do their best work, it's tough to do that in any business these days where business isn't fully safe. In an agency where there's change all the time, how do you try and square that circle of providing safety, which for some people would be continuity and stability in an environment which is just rammed with change and, I guess, progress?

CLAUDE SILVER: Yeah. A couple different ways. The first way, I would say, is the equation I have rolling around in my head all day, which happens to be connection plus trust plus empathy. That's something that I need to blanket this agency with. Connection plus trust plus empathy equals loyalty, longevity, resilience, and speed.


CLAUDE SILVER: That's how we solve business problems, with that loyalty, longevity, resilience, and speed. That's how we get to be first. The first part of that equation, though, the blanket that I'm throwing across the agency all day, is all about caring. It's all about putting people first and making sure that there's no one crying in the bathroom or the person that has their grandmother sick, that we're taking care of her. Someone's birthday we're celebrating or it's a beer bash tonight or this team has been slogging for a couple different weeks and we're sending them pizza and ice cream cake at lunchtime.

It's super, super important that I have a pulse on what's going on in this agency so I can act first. I can listen, I certainly am listening and taking in data, but then I'm acting. In some ways, I'm reacting and in some ways I'm proactively acting. I'm giving the information I have, also, to Gary, who can act almost behind the scenes and reach out to people that need that extra TLC or boost.

GLENN ELLIOTT: You're here in what I guess is the Vayner HQ here in Hudson's Yard, New York. How do you keep your finger on the pulse in the other offices, too? Do you have people that help?

CLAUDE SILVER: Yeah. We have an HR person, and you know I'm doing air quotes because I'm not HR, and we changed.

GLENN ELLIOTT: Neither Claude nor I are HR, actually. In fact, we've both managed to get here without having any HR training.


GLENN ELLIOTT: Yes, that's good.

CLAUDE SILVER: I have an HR person in London and then I have one in Los Angeles. I know that those coasts are taken care of from an HR perspective. As I said earlier, I'm texting 40 to 50 people all day in random offices at random times in the day, obviously when they're awake, I hope. That's my way of also trying to keep my finger on the pulse. I'll hear back from them, of course. I'm using Slack a lot. We've talked about this a while ago.

GLENN ELLIOTT: Transformational, isn't it, Slack?

CLAUDE SILVER: It absolutely is. It's a way for me to get a mass message out there. I'm also doing town halls, so I'll do town halls in the HQ here or I'll go to our other office in New York, where I'm taking some random group of, let's say, 25 to 30 people that I'm self-selecting, I'm picking, to get into a room with me and just jam. Most of the time I'm asking them questions to start the conversation.

GLENN ELLIOTT: Give me an idea. What sort of things do you hope to talk about in a jam of the team? What do we talk about?

CLAUDE SILVER: I wanna know how they feel like the culture is brewing. I wanna know how they feel if we're being transparent enough. Are they getting communication that they need? Then I'm listening for either patterns or roadblocks in that conversation. Then I can zig and zag. Where I wanna get to in that conversation is I want them to know there are people watching.

They're not alone. If there's a problem, thank you for telling me about it. If there's a pattern with that problem, I'm on it. But I need to get that information. Otherwise I'm going with my gut, which I think is fairly strong, but it's also subjective.

GLENN ELLIOTT: It sounds like you're creating a conduit for listening very much through one on one contact or one on team contact rather than what more traditional companies might do, which is the annual survey or the quarterly survey. Tell me about that.

CLAUDE SILVER: We do annual reviews twice a year. What we've just rolled out is radical candor feedback training, which I'm so excited about.

GLENN ELLIOTT: That's cool.

CLAUDE SILVER: We're getting into a place where feedback is much more, if not immediate, current. We just started rolling this out last week, so I'm really, really excited. Which is another way for me to get information quickly, especially if it's either phenomenal information that we wanna celebrate based on meritocracy, or if it's problematic information and I wanna act on that, whether or not that's with a performance plan or whether or not that's with a conversation with me or Gary to figure out what's not jiving here.

We do use some surveys. I can throw out an email survey, a poll survey, anytime I want, again, to any different type of population and ask three different questions, which is phenomenal, too, but this type of interaction I'm just gonna get so much more by reading your body language and having some kind of warmth and tenderness in the conversation even if it's a poor conversation.

GLENN ELLIOTT: Even if it's a challenging conversation.

CLAUDE SILVER: That's right. Not every conversation is a rosy day for me.

GLENN ELLIOTT: Yeah, we were saying it's not all rainbows.

CLAUDE SILVER: Yeah, we're dealing with people and life on life's terms. As you and I mentioned earlier, we're dealing with a microcosm that is part of this macrocosm today, which has political strife and it has natural catastrophes and it has things that happen in South Carolina or the bombings in London. This is real life. This is real life.

I have to remember that when I'm talking to people about their performance or their day or their purpose or their achievements, that 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 in London, or their friend down in Florida where the storms were.

GLENN ELLIOTT: It's interesting. I've heard of the [earth 00:10:34], people say, "They complain when staff bring their personal life to work." You shouldn't bring your personal problems to work, as if work should be this somehow hygienic, cleaned place. It's not really possible, is it? How would you even do that?

CLAUDE SILVER: I mean, you have to be such a whiz at compartmentalization. While some people might be, that's not my wish for them. 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 and I need to show up as I am outside. That's why I try to do to the best of my ability. I do compartmentalize at times because I'm in the position I'm in. There's nothing sterile about this place. You see the energy, you feel it. It's a carnival out there.

GLENN ELLIOTT: Working with young people, and [we're 00:11:31] 80% millennial, I'm often interested. I wonder if there's definitely some clear traits about millennials that we didn't have Gen X. But also, it's that there's just young people at the start of their career.

CLAUDE SILVER: That's right, that's right.

GLENN ELLIOTT: I kind of think, I wasn't millennial but I had many millennial traits. I think when you're young and you're at the start of your career, you haven't built up this armory of tools and defenses that you have when you've been through more of your career. I was curious as to how you start to build in resilience and just work with people on coping with the ups and downs of work. I wondered if that's part of what you do.

CLAUDE SILVER: Part of the coaching that I'll do one on one is I'll take people through a map of themselves, starting with "How does the team see you? What is the value that you bring to a 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 them feedback. When they say to me, "I'm strategic" and I said, "What does strategic mean, Glenn?" You say, "I'm a problem-solver." "Well, what does a problem-solver mean?" You say something else, and I'll say, "You know what, what I think a problem-solver means in the context of VaynerMedia is ... Let's see if we can reverse engineer how you solve problems."

That's one way that I'm trying to build in more self-awareness, certainly more empathy and understanding. I use the word "tenderness" a lot as I just did with you probably five times. I want to get to a place where they know that I'm here to help them be the best selves that they possibly can be, and that we change quickly. Gary is a CEO who is not only a phenomenal salesperson, he's a phenomenal entrepreneur, he's been very disruptive in the space of marketing, thus we are, as well.

We're not for the faint of heart. I can't tell you that everyone is going to be successful here because of how much we zig and zag. But we really do try to teach certain core, fundamental, human skills, life skills. Life skills outside of learning how to code, outside of learning how to put paid media campaigns and optimize them online, learning how to use Photoshop or creating phenomenal videos that belong on your mobile phone. We're also teaching life skills here.

GLENN ELLIOTT: It's interesting. I think any successful business these days is very fast-paced and the agency is super fast-paced. I think the thing that you do is so special because your context changes. The tools you use, like Snapchat and Instagram and Facebook, those tools are changing all the time and you often don't even have forewarning that those tools will change. It must be interesting working here, thinking you're a Snapchat expert one day and then tomorrow Snapchat changes all the rules and you've gotta relearn or change your pace. It really is, I can see it not being a place for the faint hearted.

CLAUDE SILVER: It's not. We need people to not only come along for the ride with us, we need them to also get into the driver's seat and drive the car. Drive their own car, growth, development, opportunities, learning, management, mentorship, all of those things, but also drive the car as a leader. I want to build leaders here. I really do. If you say to me, "Hey, Claude. I never wanna be a number one, but I wanna be a number three," great. Let's build you into the best number three you can be. I get that a lot.

Or I get, "I wanna be just like Gary." Well, what is it that you love about Gary? Where is that in you? How can we map those skills or those traits up to what you see as aspirational?

GLENN ELLIOTT: I imagine what an army of many Garys would be like. It would be both phenomenal and terrifying at the same time.

CLAUDE SILVER: It would be amazing.

GLENN ELLIOTT: We'd need an army of many Claudes just to put the yin and yang, I think, too. That'll make it right. That would be great. That would be great. 700 people across VaynerMedia. You must get into some hairy moments just dealing with the day to day stuff. What have you learnt? You've been doing this job for 18 months. Any surprises that you didn't expect when you started the job?

CLAUDE SILVER: Yes. The number one surprise and what I've learned are the exact same thing. Don't sweat the small stuff. 99% of the things don't matter. Focus on the 1% that matters. The 1% because at the end of the day, there's just noise. That doesn't mean that people are noise, it just means sometimes there's just drama or it just belongs over there or there or there. I've learned to be able to focus in on that 1% a lot quicker.

GLENN ELLIOTT: Is it getting easier to work out what the 1% is? I sometimes struggle with that, as well, on the daily.

CLAUDE SILVER: It really does depend. Then I have people that can help me find it. I am certainly not the Wizard of Oz here. I also have Gary. I can say to him, "What is it that you want me to focus on here?" Or I can see in his response where he's taking a response, which is not in the first part of the sentence that I spent so much time writing, it's just that last little word. That, I have to say, the learning and surprise are both the same for me.

I would also say that once again, I am warmed by how resilient people can be. I really think that that's something that it warms me every single day.

GLENN ELLIOTT: Interesting.


GLENN ELLIOTT: You're pretty special in your role also because you were an SVP here running a major account for a year and a half before you took a little gap and came back as Chief Heart Officer. It's unusual for the person doing the HR director's role, the people director's role, to also have walked the walk and done the real job that the people have done, too. I wondered if that helps you to empathize and understand.

CLAUDE SILVER: I couldn't do this job had I never worked in an agency before. There is no way I could do this job.

GLENN ELLIOTT: It must give you some kind of moral credibility, too, when you're talking to your people out there and they know that you've done many of their jobs.

CLAUDE SILVER: Yeah, exactly. They know I've been in agencies for 18 years, and some of them I used to manage. It not only gives me credibility, it gives me equity.

GLENN ELLIOTT: I can see that.

CLAUDE SILVER: I think there's a little bit of trust there, a little bit more trust. But there's no way I could do my job without knowing what an agency was like. I feel like I would be fake.

GLENN ELLIOTT: Do you think the stresses and strains on people have changed in those 18 years?

CLAUDE SILVER: Oh, God, yeah.


CLAUDE SILVER: I do. I think the speed of life is so much quicker. Yes, it was fast when I was at an agency back in 1998 or something, but life has sped up. I really don't know if there's a separation or if there's a balance anymore.

GLENN ELLIOTT: Anymore, yeah.

CLAUDE SILVER: Yeah. Instead of work/life balance now, I'm really trying to focus on energy management. Managing the energy that I put in rather than focusing on the balance. I say this to a lot of the people that come through these doors, which is, "Let's focus on how much energy it's going to take you to do X task. Let's put a milestone there. Then, after that milestone, why don't you take a 10-minute lap. Why don't you check Instagram for five minutes. Why don't you go downstairs and get a cup of coffee?"

Managing your energy so that it's just not chaotic energy. It can really be frenetic or fast, fast, fast, fast. We are in the service of clients here. Clients wanted it yesterday. It's already tomorrow. Helping people manage their energy and being more mindful of what they're putting out and how maybe they can use that energy to feed themselves rather than deplete themselves. Super important.

GLENN ELLIOTT: It's funny. I think when I was at school and our teachers were teaching us about computerization long before the Internet came out, I remember a computer science teacher said that when we all grew up and we were in the working world, we'd have a leisure time problem. We'd have too much leisure time and we'd be thinking about what to do with all our leisure time because computers would be doing all the work. I think, "How wrong they were!"

CLAUDE SILVER: Where are the robots?



GLENN ELLIOTT: Bring them in! Bring them in!

CLAUDE SILVER: Yeah, exactly. That's wild. I'm sure at some point in the next 20 years we'll see a lot of roles become more robotic, computerized, AI, artificial intelligence, but please tell me when a robot will be able to be empathetic. I just don't know if that will ever happen. I don't know if that could happen in a role that I do or that people on my team do, or certainly in the role that you've done in your life.

GLENN ELLIOTT: I think it seems so far anywhere in our journey that automation and robotics just makes our job faster, somehow, rather than necessarily easier. You know what I mean?

CLAUDE SILVER: Yeah. It speeds things up.

GLENN ELLIOTT: Let's talk a little bit about managers, because obviously the business with 700 staff, you must have a whole hierarchy of managers. I know that one of the issues with employee engagement and how people feel about work is often, "Do we spend enough time on management training?" In a really open culture like Vayner where you've got a very, very short line from the CEO and the Chief Heart Officer to everybody, managers can sometimes find that difficult to deal with or they can hunt for their own role. I wondered how you deal with that and what that's like here.

CLAUDE SILVER: The biggest rule of thumb for sure is that we don't micromanage at all. Gary and I come from a place of absolutely no micromanagement. You have enormous amounts of runway to run your department, run your team, run your pod the way you wish to do it. We have some loose guidelines. Treat people well. Don't be an a-hole.

GLENN ELLIOTT: That's a very important one, that one.

CLAUDE SILVER: Give feedback. Ask for feedback. We have some basic rules of the road. But when it comes to how you're going to manage your team, we trust that you know how to manage. Now, that doesn't mean that we don't provide management training, and we do. We provide all different kinds of training. For example, today we have unconscious bias training happening. That's 25 people going through. It's managers and then we'll roll it out.

I was telling you about the radical candor feedback training we're giving. That all was with managers first and now we'll roll it out. We're always trying to improve their skills and I guess adapt their skills to a changing workforce. I mean, different people need different things. What works for the goose might not work for the gander. I may need to manage you differently than I manage those 20 people. We can do that.

GLENN ELLIOTT: [inaudible 00:23:27] Just bringing up diversity, and we're filming this interview at a time when Silicon Valley's been under a lot of exposure on how women are treated there. There was the shocking story last week of virtual reality startup that had a sex room on the ground floor and all sorts of kind of stuff. What more can we do-

CLAUDE SILVER: That's amazing.

GLENN ELLIOTT: I know, where do we start? The CEO isn't even being fired. How do we fix the diversity issue at work and what more can we do?

CLAUDE SILVER: The first thing, I do think we need to get better at is empowering people to communicate. There is no fear in saying, "That didn't feel good to me." My wish is that there is no shame in raising your hand, whether or not that's to me, to your manager, to Gary, and saying, "X, Y, Z didn't feel good to me. Can we talk about that?" I also don't think there is any shame in then using teachable moments. But if we don't know that these things are happening, then I feel like I'm using a dart and not really hitting a bullseye, if that makes sense.

But the empowerment of people, of all people, of all people, to speak up is super important. To me, that goes back to what I was saying to you in terms of belonging. Belonging is super important here. Having a place that is diverse and inclusive is the most important. If you are a person of color, you want to walk in here and see other people of color. If you are LGBTQ, you want to know there's a pride group here. Just like if you have dyslexia, we have tools for that.

I can't wait for the day, and I really do think there will be a day, when we will have solved as a human race, I'm an optimist, that we will have solved that in some way, shape, or form. Rather than calling people out for being other, embracing them for being other. It reminds me of something that I think is important to share at this moment. How we hire has changed, and it's changed in the last 18 months since I've been in this role.

We used to hire for culture fit. I like you, you have a British accent, I used to live in London. Oh, that's great. You have a dog, I have a dog. Terrific. Oh, you like trance music. I like trance. You're hired. I can teach you the rest. The world's changed, our work has changed, our work has evolved tenfold since even a year ago. Now, we need to hire for skillset fit and culture addition. What are you going to add to this wonderful culture?

GLENN ELLIOTT: That's interesting.

CLAUDE SILVER: That's what we're doing. What is your square on that quilt gonna look like? I know you're gonna be able to do your skill, 'cause I hired you to do X, Y, and Z and I know you can do that based on your CV and maybe a test, references. Now, I want you to be able to add your uniqueness. Again, it comes with light guidelines. You're not gonna be an a-hole.

GLENN ELLIOTT: Interesting.


GLENN ELLIOTT: I think that's a lovely, lovely way to end. Ending with not that you fit our culture, that you add to our culture, that you enhance our culture. CLAUDE SILVER, thank you so much.

CLAUDE SILVER: Thank you, Glenn.

GLENN ELLIOTT: You've been amazing.

CLAUDE SILVER: Thank you so much.

GLENN ELLIOTT: Claude is an amazing guest. Thank you so much. That's it for us from the VaynerMedia HQ here in Hudson's Yard, New York. Claude has a whole case study in "Build It: The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement," where she explains everything about how she runs her special coaching sessions here at Vayner. That's it for me. You can find more interviews like this all at RebelPlaybook.com.