BTG’s Co-CEO Jody Greenstone Miller on Adapting to the Challenges of 2020

Upwork Back to Better podcast logo with headshot of Jody Greenstone Miller, Co-Founder & Co-CEO of Business Talent Group

Upwork’s Back to Better podcast examines how companies are learning, growing, and transforming themselves through the Covid-19 crisis by exploring topics such as remote work, digital transformation, dealing with change, and adopting the growth mindset.

Business Talent Group’s Co-Founder and Co-CEO Jody Greenstone Miller recently joined Back to Better hosts Tim Sanders and Gene Gates to discuss:

  • BTG’s origin during the Great Recession of 2008 and rapid growth as the economy stabilized and companies tapped independent talent to help with their renewed focus on growth and innovation
  • The better-than-anticipated results of the Great Remote Work Experiment brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, companies’ increasing acceptance of remote work, and BTG’s own history of flexible working arrangements
  • How the accelerating adoption of remote work and increased usage of on-demand, high-end business talent can help companies access a richer, global pool of expertise and emerge better on the other side of 2020

Read an excerpted transcript of Jody’s interview below or listen to the full episode on the Upwork Back to Better website.

YOU ARE MORE ADAPTABLE NOW, BUT ARE YOU CONSTANTLY TRANSFORMING? (PODCAST EXCERPT)

Tim Sanders:

Speaking of partners, our next guest is a partner in an exclusive collaboration with Upwork. She’s also a great example of an innovative mind, just like Tim Minahan, that’s always thinking about how to take the current opportunities and create more value. She joins us now via the Zencaster wifi network.

Jody Greenstone Miller is the co-founder, co-CEO and chair of Business Talent Group. We like to call it BTG, the premier marketplace for high-end, on-demand talent. Recently, BTG and Upwork entered into an exclusive collaboration. Jody, welcome to the program.

Jody Miller:

Thanks. Happy to be here.

Tim Sanders:

Business Talent Group, tell us a little bit about the platform and about your talent pool.

Jody Miller:

So BTG was built to create an on-demand capability for big organizations to tap into the really rich, increasingly growing population of high-end business talent, former consultants, former executives, subject matter experts, interim executives, project managers, people who bring a lot of experience and ability to jump in and really make a difference on day one.

Tim Sanders:

I like that phrase, high-end. Gene, you’re a pretty high-end person. You really need to look into BTG.

Jody Miller:

We’d love to have you.

Gene Gates:

I already reached out on LinkedIn, and we’re going to be besties any moment here, Jody.

Tim Sanders:

Okay. Wonderful. Jody, BTG was named to Inc. Magazine’s 5,000 fastest growing companies a remarkable three years in a row. What drove that level of growth?

Jody Miller:

It’s actually interesting, Tim, and I think it’s really relevant for where we are today. BTG was formed literally on the eve of the last great recession. I think we cashed our last investor check the day before Lehman went under.

Tim Sanders:

Wow.

Jody Miller:

We ended up, I had come out of venture capital, and so I looked at the world and I said, “I’m not spending this money right now. We’ll be in business,” but the whole world was frozen, actually, in a way that, in retrospect, seems much worse than what happened with COVID. So we ended up keeping our powder dry, and then as the economy started to stabilize, what we saw is that we had a value proposition that was incredibly relevant. Companies who were beginning to pop their heads out of the sand said, “We want to start getting back to mostly growth and innovation,” because that’s what came to a halt in a recession. Anything that’s future-oriented gets shortchanged, but they weren’t quite ready to go to a traditional, expensive either full-time traditional permanent hire or a big consulting project, and what we were offering was kind of perfect.

Tim Sanders:

Well, as Yogi Berra always liked to say, the great philosopher Yogi Berra, it’s deja vu all over again.

Jody Miller:

[crosstalk 00:05:42].

Tim Sanders:

So Jody, talk to me about what you’re hearing now from some of your customers about how they’re going to add back capacity in 2020, 2021.

Jody Miller:

Yeah. I mean, I think there’s no question that not only is it just the dynamics that we saw coming out of the last recession, but there’s also been a big change, some of it really driven by Upwork in the overall both visibility footprint and acceptance of both on-demand talent and remote talent. So my view is that this moment of moving from massive uncertainty to stabilization will be supercharged compared to what we saw coming out of the recession, because there is an Upwork, because BTG has been in the market all this time, making people comfortable with this, because remote was a battlefield education for most of corporate America.

Tim Sanders:

Right.

Jody Miller:

I think when you add all of that together, what you will see is, as Hayden has said, I think it’s going to be the golden age for the transition to a new way to work.

Tim Sanders:

Absolutely. I want to go back just a few clicks. You mentioned remote work is a battlefield, and I agree that as recent as last year, a preponderance of leaders would say their teams could not work from home, not productively, not well at all. Obviously, the great remote work experiment of 2020 played out much better than expected. You serve on boards. You talk often to your enterprise customers. What are you hearing from them about remote work, going forward?

Jody Miller:

So BTG, like Upwork, has always been a remote distributed company. So we’ve kind of always had a bit of this. As a business, our clients, until March of 2020, I would say on average, about 70% of our projects had, at the client’s request, at least some on-site component. The biggest question we had when COVID started is what would happen to those projects? Would clients just clam up and say, “We can’t go on”? 98% of them continued remotely, just transitioned seamlessly to remote.

Jody Miller:

So from just our business perspective, I think clients have done the fastest progression I could have ever imagined in being open to a remote independent talent relationship. With respect to their own employees, I think it’s a mix, and I think you can see that if you look. Even the Wall Street Journal, there’s a group of CEOs who are like, “This is working just fine. It’s going to be okay. We actually like it. Our employees get to live wherever they want. That may ultimately come into lower costs for both salary and facilities.” There’s been a group of CEOs who … I mean, I think it was the Netflix CEO, Reed—

Tim Sanders:

Yeah, Reed Hastings.

Jody Miller:

… saying, “I don’t like it. I like to walk down the halls. I like the camaraderie.” So I think there’s a continuum. Some of it may be just personalities and the way people like to work, but I don’t think there’s any question that it can produce great results. So I have a slightly different point of view. I think COVID is an unnatural environment to ask this question, because not only are people remote and distributed, they’re also very isolated in their personal life.

Tim Sanders:

Yeah. So my question for you, Jody, is for your teams, what can you do as a leader to help them overcome those distractions, that loneliness, and that work-life balance so that they can be very productive, even in 2020?

Jody Miller:

So, first of all, BTG has always been about trying to give people a lot of options to create the work versus the rest of their life that they want, because people want different things at different stages. So as a company, that’s always been a priority. We’ve had people work less than what would be considered 100%, 40 hours a week, who are still leaders in the organization. So I think that piece of it, that’s always been part of our culture.

Look, I don’t think there’s a silver bullet here. We’re doing what everybody’s doing, right? Personally, me and the executive team reaches out much more regularly for video coffees with our team. We create Wellness Wednesday, where we have yoga instruction. We do what we can to enrich the experience of people, both connecting to one another inside of BTG and to give them something that will break up the day. We try to give them more flexibility when they need time. We’re doing book clubs. We’re trying to do anything to enrich their environment. When it’s possible, we’re about to try … Our team in Chicago met outside in the park, socially distant, so they could just have a picnic. We’ll try and do the same thing in LA and in climates where we can do it.

It’s understanding that people will have stresses that are not necessarily caused by BTG, but caused by the situation and trying to support them. Again, I think that, in some ways, work is a really positive thing in people’s lives during this period, because otherwise, they’re sitting at home, and what are they doing?

Gene Gates:

Exactly. So Jody, a strategist or a consultant, that seems so normal and common. How would you differentiate that from having an on-demand expert?

Jody Miller:

Well, I think yes, a strategist, there are a lot of strategists and consultants. I think what there are not a lot of is access in a really efficient, on-demand way to a pool of people who are readily available, who have the quality of the people you might access at a top firm, but who you can bring in in a bespoke way to do exactly what you need to do.

Gene Gates:

If you were going to just highlight the advantages of on-demand versus bringing in a firm, how would you define those?

Jody Miller:

I think you get to pick who you work with, exactly who you work with. When you bring in a big firm, you often have a senior person who sells you and then a lot of more junior folks who come in behind them. In this world, you get to decide what team you want, who’s on that team, and who’s doing the work, which allows you to get a much more precise skillset into the project that you can get exactly what you need. You can add subject matter experts. You can bring project managers in when you get to the execution stage. So it’s a very flexible, precise model. Compared to a lot of the brand name firms, it’s much more economical.

The brand name firms, it’s much more economical. Our talent is very well paid and fairly paid, but they’re not supporting big offices and what used to be flying around the world first class. So, it’s just a more economical strategy, not just because of the overhead change, but also because, again, you get to pick what you need as opposed to fitting into a firm’s desired way to structure a project, which often is really designed for their economics.

Tim Sanders:

Last question, how can companies emerge better on the other side of 2020, because of the experience, the ways they’ve adapted? In other words, Jody, what could be the silver lining?

Jody Miller:

Oh my gosh. So, many silver linings. In a very self-serving way, for me and for Upwork, for BTG and Upwork they will recognize they need to integrate, in a more systematic way, access to independent talent. And get that access pushed down to their users. Not keep it up in HR, or through some centralized thing. You’ve got to push it throughout the organization. I think flexibility around remote and with that, to me, comes flexibility around the number of hours worked. One of the things that I’ve often felt was very unfair in the world is that if you were willing to devote 24/7 to your job, that really got rid of a whole lot of people, a whole lot of competitors. And so, as a practical matter, I don’t believe organizations are getting the best people. They’re getting the best people who are willing to make that choice. And I think if you open up the world to different choices, on that spectrum, you will, in fact, open up your organization to a much richer talent pool.

Tim Sanders:

Wonderful. Thank you so much. We’ve been talking to Jody Greenstone Miller. She is the co-CEO of Business Talent Group. Thank you for your time, thank you for your insights. And best to you in the days ahead.

Jody Miller:

Thanks so much, Tim.

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