Nancy Lyons CEO of Award Winning Digital Agency Clockwork

This week, Jonathan Denwood and Kim Shivler interviewed Nancy Lyons, CEO of Clockwork, an award winning, interactive design agency.

Clockwork is known as one of the best places to work in Minneapolis, and Nancy shared insights on how to create a people-centered corporate culture, and why it’s important to consider that different employees work and process in different ways and how allowing this increases engagement. Nancy is co-author with Meghan Wilker of the book: Interactive Project Management, Pixels, People, & Process which takes a people-centered approach to delivering outstanding digital products.

Here’s a Full Transcriptions of Our Interview With Nancy Lyons CEO of Award Winning Digital Agency Clockwork

Jonathan: Hi there folks. Welcome to back to the WP-Tonic show. This is episode 234. I’ve got the immense pleasure of a great guest. We’ve got Nancy Lyons, CEO of the award-winning Digital Agency Clockwork. Could you introduce yourself in a little bit more detail, Nancy?

Nancy: Sure. Hi. First all, thanks for having me. I’m Nancy. The company is Clockwork and we’re based in Minneapolis. We have clients actually all over the globe and a pretty significant national footprint. We solve business problems for the enterprise and we use technology to do it. And we are a customer experience company first in that we are constantly trying to enhance and build customer experiences that lead to measurable bottom line growth results for our client. So oftentimes that manifests itself in user experience, assignments from our clients or a full-scale software development. So the kind of work we do runs the gamut. But we are experts at strategy and design and content and technology, planning and deployment.

Jonathan: Oh, that’s great Nancy. I’d like to also introduce my great co-host, Kim.

Kim: Hey everybody. It’s Kim Shivler. I teach Business Technology and Communications. And I’m a co-host here on the WP-Tonic. You can also find us Friday on the Round Table.

Jonathan: Oh, great. And I’m the founder of WP-Tonic. We’re a WordPress service maintenance support company that only works in the WordPress world. And before we go into the interview, I’d like to mention our sponsor which is IntelligenceWP. And what is IntelligenceWP? It is a plugin which you can install that can deal with the pain of Google Analytics. Yes folks. You know. You set up Google Analytics for yourself or for your clients and then you never look at it again. Because they’re always changing it and it’s a nightmare.

Well, IntelligenceWP solves that problem. So it’s free. It’s not crippled, the basic product. It’s totally usable. And I would suggest that you go to the website and find some more about it. It’s a great product. So we’re going to go into the interview now with Nancy. Now, Nancy, you’ve been in this business quite a while now. I’ve listened to your previous interviews and great content Nancy. You also wrote a book, Interactive Project Management: Pixels, Pieces, and Process. I’ve just ordered myself actually Nancy. I read the reviews and then I thought I’m mostly involved in Project Management nowadays. I’ve got the scars to show it, Nancy. Got any insights about, it’s a big question and then maybe we ask you some specifics. But to start off with, have you got any kind of insights about how you manage a successful project?

Nancy: Yeah. I think good Project Managers are leaders. They’re team leaders. Traditionally or historically, we’ve looked at Project Managers as paper pushers or traffickers of information. And I think that that is minimalizing not only the role but the value of the role. And I think what Megan, my co-author, and colleague, and friend and I tried to do in writing that book was really position Project Managers as the central, the core, the heart of any development team. And I think in believing that and in setting that up, you set your project up for success. And then you have to hire smart people to actually execute on that thinking. And I think that Digital Project Management especially requires people that are adept at, not only hard skills of managing logistics, the pieces and parts and components of highly technical and complex projects but also the soft skills of managing people.

Because at the end of the day, project teams and the products we build are all about people. And I think that that is something that for a long time in the technology space was really. We thought that if you’re a great programmer, then you must be great at project execution. And if you understand sort of the deep complexities of technology, then you belong in this industry. And I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think having a deep understanding of people is actually more essential to the work. So the first half of the book is really about soft skills, emotional intelligence, how to understand people in roles, how to flex really quickly, how to pivot and adapt. And that’s what we’ve gotten a ton of feedback about is just understanding the whole person that is a Project Manager. And it’s not just a role. It’s a human.

Jonathan: Yeah. I think that’s greatly put Nancy. Would you agree with this quick statement? I’ve found in my experience that you’ve got to find what the fundamental driver of the project is. You obviously got to deal with the decision maker or decision makers. You think it would be, but it’s not always clear what is the real reason why they’re doing this, why they’ve engaged you and why they’ve engaged your agency. Would you agree with that?

Nancy: Absolutely. I think that clients are, for the most, very tactical when they think about digital. So they see digital as a tactical expense. And I think they need to see it as a strategic investment. And so, I often tell our clients that a good portion of what we do is reframe the whole conversation from the beginning. So they come through the door and they say, “We need a new website”. And we step back and say, “What is the problem that we’re trying to solve? What is the best plan for moving forward to solve that problem? And then, how can we measure it to ensure that we’ve built the right solution?”. And sometimes, I think when asked or speaking really pervasive in the digital conversation that’s the thing we hear about all the time, “We need an app”. “Why do you need an app?”. “We just need one. We need one because our competitor has one”.

“What are we trying to solve?”. So for us, every single project that we do, and this is in the book, requires us strategy phase. Even if it’s limited. Even if it’s not terribly expensive, it’s still important to answer that question. What’s the primary driver? What’s the area of pain we’re trying to address? What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? And what’s the overarching strategic answer that is driving us to build this solution?

Jonathan: So you’ve got a very impressive past client or present client list. Starbucks, 3M. These are quite large organizations. How do you start working with something like 3M? Are you introduced to them by somebody in the business or by a past client? How do you normally get your foot in the door really Nancy?

Nancy: Yeah. It’s interesting that you bring up 3M because I would say that the majority of our clients come to us via word of mouth. So it’s all reputation. If you do good work, then more good work follows. But 3M in particular came to us because the global director of innovation at the time read the book and a particular problem to solve and called me one day and said, “I just read your book. I think you can help with something”. And so that was weird and fortunate and not something that happens generally, but something that I certainly welcomed. But for the most part, our work happens because we do good work.

Jonathan: You talked about the culture in your agency. You’ve been a big proponent on balancing family and work. A phrase that you used in the previous conversation really resonates. The limitations of reality though. You used that phrase in a previous interview. I love it. The limitations of reality. Like to go in about this balance but it’s limited by the reality of the situation. Like to talk about that Nancy?

Nancy: Yeah. I think we about the concept of work life balance. But I’ve said on multiple occasions that there’s no such thing. It’s all life. I think that our work identities are really our whole identities. Who we are at work is the thing that we’re most proud of. I did a talk yesterday for a large healthcare company and I was talking to one of their divisions and I said, “We don’t introduce ourselves and say, ‘Hi. My name is Nancy. I’m a Mom and a spouse'”. Because we don’t actually feel validated. It’s a good thing and it’s something that you want to talk about. But really, when we introduce ourselves, we say, “Hi. My name is Nancy. I’m the CEO of a company”. And that is the thing that people sort of latch onto and it tells a story about you. And so, I think that we are now very far away from those times when we work from 9 to 5 and we were measured on our output. Now we are expected to be strategic thinkers and leaders.

And so, I think to expect that at 5 o’clock work is over, that’s sort of this thing that’s baked into our DNA. It’s the legacy of work, but it’s not true anymore. And so, it’s really about finding space in our days and creating workplaces that allow for this space to include your family responsibilities. Your caregiver responsibilities.

And I think this is a particularly interesting conversation as a woman. Because whether men believe it or not, I think women are very challenged with trying to have it all. And the fact of the matter is, nobody has it all, not even men. Men have wives. And wives are magical fairies that help men get it all done, right? And women still sort of bear the responsibility of and the mental load around managing household and trying to do work and trying to get ahead career-wise. So I think where I have tried to spend my time and energy as a business owner is in creating a space where all of the humans here, the men, the women have opportunity to really focus on the careers they want while also embracing their responsibilities as caregivers and being engaged and not feeling like they have to sacrifice one for the other.

Jonathan: I think that’s really greatly put. Just to comment on that Nancy is that in America and Britain because I’ve lived a little bit in Scandinavia and Continental Europe, but unfortunately in America, it’s worse than in Britain. It is not family friendly, the corporate or general environment to family life really, is it in America?

Nancy: No. I mean, I think that we talk a really good game. I do a lot of public speaking and lately, I’ve been talking at HR Conferences. Just last week I was at one and I was talking about how I think it’s interesting that we work hard to create policies. Policies that allow people things like stability and remote working, except the people inside of the organization stigmatize the people that take advantage of those policies. And so, as organizations, we do a bad job of making those things because we judge people for actually wanting to go home and take care of their kids. They’re wanting to split their time between their home office and their work office which is why we’re such a hard time figuring out how to extend culture to remote workers. We don’t know how to do that because to us culture translates to. You have to come to a place in order to benefit from culture. But culture, is really just how you make people feel. And they all have to be involved in that energy and that feeling. So, yeah. It’s almost a travesty. We’re so advanced and so far behind in so many ways and that’s one way.

Jonathan: You kind of touched it in previous interviews, Nancy. Because you said there’s also the bottom line. Billable hours, getting the most which is linked to this phrase that you used. The limitations of reality.

Nancy: Right.

Jonathan: So how do you balance the business needs with the culture needs?

Nancy: Well, I think at the end of the day, you hire smart people who want a sense of ownership around the work in the organization. And who really feel like the values are values that they reflect in the work that they do. I think agency life can be really rough if there’s no real concerns for the quality of life that the people that work there live. So for us, I would say that on the average, our people work about 43 hours, 43 to 45. And we monitor those, and that’s when we’re busy. We monitor their weekly utilization. We monitor their client utilization. We monitor the time they spend. If people are spending too much and the remote policy is real, the flexibility is real, the ability to time shift. Go pick your kids up from school.

Spend a couple hours with them. Finish up your work day at home. And you’re not going to work 50, 60 hours and we’re going to burn you out and not care. And we’re going to have active conversations with people if they’re putting in too many hours and we’re not seeing them take advantage of opportunities for self-care or we’re not seeing them connect with their families. Those are active conversations that we want to facilitate. So I think it really is a part of our values. I mean, our mission statement is pretty simple. And I think now that I’m a mature business owner, it’s almost kind of funny. But it’s still true and it is exactly who we are. And it’s not this overly ambitious, “We’re going to make all the money there is to make for the owner”. Trust me on this one. But our mission statement is, “Do great work and have great lives”.

And that’s because my business partners and I when we started this company, we were trying to create a place where we wanted to be. And it was important to us that our values were reflected in the work day in and day out and that our families were included in how we were thinking about work. And so we made that our mission statement. And 16 years later, it’s still true. And everybody that comes here really believes. We’re not trying to conquer the world. And I believe that culture can be a business strategy. If you take care of your people first, your customers will also feel cared for. And that is something that’s really important to us. But I do believe it’s a cultural value that needs to be in place. And yes, sometimes we work more than we expected to because sometimes deadlines are looming. And sometimes we work through the weekend, sometimes.

I’ve had clients come to me and tell me that is their expectation and we do not work with those clients. But sometimes it happens. And it happens because we didn’t anticipate something or we added a feature in the eleventh hour or whatever it is. And in those moments, we agree together that this is how we’re going to complete this task and this is what we’re all going to commit and we move through it together. The nature of the business is. And those are things that we accept by the very fact that we work here.

Jonathan: Thanks for that Nancy. I think we’ll go for our break. I really enjoyed this interview with Nancy Lyons. We’ll be back in a second folks and we’ll be delving a little bit more. Be back in a minute.

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Jonathan: We’re coming back. We’ve been interviewing Nancy Lyons, CEO of Clockwork. I’ve got one more question before I hand it over to my great co-host who’s been patient. How do you avoid burnout in yourself, Nancy? Because you’ve got a lot of responsibility. You’ve got over, I think over 50 people. They rely on you for leadership and for a paycheck and guidance. Plus you’ve got to deal with clients. How do you avoid total burnout in yourself, Nancy?

Nancy: There’s certainly been moments in time where I have not avoided it. And so, I think keeping that top of mind is a priority. And believing that I deserve to take care of myself is critical. I have to prioritize myself or I am of no use to other people. So I think that’s key and that’s a lesson that most of us who work hard have to teach ourselves over and over and over again. That being said, I have a terrific leadership team. The goal is to always hire better than yourself. And in a lot of ways, we have done that.

And I have a COO who’s also my co-author of the book who leads the day to day operations of our organization and works directly with clients and is brilliant. I have a leadership team of folks who have been in this business for a good amount of time and are strategic and autonomous in how they sort of move through the world and move through this work. So honestly, I think the best way to avoid burnout is A, to prioritize yourself and B, to surround yourself we really smart, really focused, really driven humans who share your values and share the desire for growth and success for all of the humans that we employ.

Jonathan: That’s great. I’m going to let my great co-host Kim. Go on Kim. Ask some questions.

Kim: Absolutely. Thanks for letting me jump in. My mind’s been going in so many directions as you’ve been talking Nancy. For example, I loved that you mentioned how you came about your culture and what you wanted your culture to be. And I think part of why you’re so successful with that is you really seem to hone in on your values as opposed to, what I see a lot of times now with companies is that they’re just pointing to another company that’s known for culture, like Google or something. And it’s like, “Well, if we copy them, then we’ll have culture and everyone will be happy and they’ll be peachy and rosy”. But I find that’s not what happens. How was the process that you can your team got together to establish what that value and how you wanted to build that culture that has been successful for you?

Nancy: Sure. Well, I think for one thing, that process is never-ending. So here’s 16 years later. We still visit, the things that are sacred to us, the things that are important to us, we’re still asking our staff to continually contribute to that conversation and tell us what matters and what’s of value. I mean, even when we built out our buildings that we’re in now, one of the things we did was we sent out a survey and we said, “Do you need a desk? Do you need your own space? Do you need standing desks? Do you need more communal space? What is it that makes you happy?”. The other thing that I see happen is people manifest culture in their space or they believe they’re manifesting culture by creating a space. And so there was that period of time where everybody wanted open workspaces for collaboration. And so they did it and then you heard from everybody, “Oh my God. I can’t get anything done. It’s so loud in here”. So I think what we always have tried to do and what we started doing was just including the people that work here in contributing that cultural conversation so that we are recognizing what is sacred. And that’s the thing that I ask people all the time. You have to decide what’s sacred. For us, it is that sort of fluid work environment. The understanding that not everybody performs exactly the same. Some people do want to sit at the kitchen table for the bulk of the day. And some people want to hunker down with their headphones on and focus only on their work. And some people do collaborate differently. And so trying to create the space for that. But at the start of it, I think it’s important just to ask the questions and give people the opportunity to answer honestly. And then co-create the space to support that.

Kim: I love that. And it’s so true. One of the things I teach with communication styles is identifying how people learn best and how people work best. And it sounds like you have adopted whatever works for each person which is really nice. How do you think you have been able to build this in a way that you’ve escaped, which you’ve mentioned before, where people were judged for taking advantage of whatever their own style is? What’s the secret that you’ve been able to keep that out of your culture?

Nancy: Yeah. I mean, I think that starts with leadership. I think it’s important for leadership to really bake that into the DNA of the organization. And for me, I have never been a 9 to 5. Even in College or in school, I would do papers at the last minute and it marinate forever and then I would sit down and I would do fine work. But my process doesn’t look like everybody else’s process. I think that work mirrors so much of what we do in culture. In that, we expect everybody, education. We expect everybody to learn the same. Sit the same way in the class. Keep your mouth shut. My son is 11 years old. And for the first, even 5th grade and for the last 5 years, what we’ve struggled with is him behaving like every other student. And if talk to any mother of boys, she is struggling with the same stuff. Boys can’t sit still.

They can’t sit still. But what do we want? We want our kids to shut up and sit still and behave and learn the way everybody, we want everybody to work like that. Shut up. Show up at this time. And yet, we’re bothered by the fact that we aren’t keeping up with the demands of innovation. And we’re bothered by the fact that we aren’t keeping up globally. And we’re bothered by the fact that companies aren’t able to change.

Well, it’s because we’ve never demand change from people and they don’t want it. They’re comfortable sitting in their seats and leaving at 5 and not caring. And we know this, right? They say that only 19 percent of the American workforce is fully engaged. And that leaves us with 81 percent of humans who actually don’t care about their job. So it’s not me saying this. Data suggests that this is true. And we lose between $300 and $400 billion a year as a country because people aren’t engaged in their work. So if all we have to do is live a little and ask them, “What do you need to be engaged?”. “Well, we need to know that you care about us and our families by extension. We need to know that you recognize that I’m not going to perform the same way as the 42 people in my division. But I’ll do my best if you give me the space to do it”.

We don’t have those conversations. We don’t know how to make room for them. And I think in the early days of our company, we had just been in a situation where I witnessed the boss of another organization only walk around amongst his humans at 4:30 on a Friday to make that they were still in the office. And frankly, if you have the time, if you’re done with your work or you want to do it on Saturday instead and it’s gorgeous at 4:30 on a Friday, go outside in the sun.

Go out because it’s going to make you better. It’s going to keep you engaged. It’s going make the work better. By extension, our clients will be happier. I don’t care if you do the work Saturday afternoon. As long as we’re meeting our deadlines and keeping our promises. So I think it’s because I don’t work that way. My business partners don’t work that way. And the world is struggling to work that way. So we decided to create a space where we could feel good about that. Don’t even get me started. Don’t get me started. I will get on a soapbox.

Kim: I like your soapbox. I’m with you. I’m going to have to go buy the book now too. And more companies need that. I’m at a point now where I’m solo, other than a remote team of VAs. And so, I have set myself up like that. I’m an early morning person. I get up early. By 3 I’m done. Don’t call me after 3. I’m done. I like to go cook dinner. I like to watch Judge Judy. That’s my guilty pleasure in the afternoon.

Nancy: I love you.

Kim: I think more companies need to do this.

Nancy: Sure.

Kim: From your personal self-care, as you’ve developed this, do you have any type of mindfulness or meditation practice? Or what is your favorite self-care tool on an ongoing basis to keep you grounded?

Nancy: Music. It’s music. I’m an old theatre nerd. When I first met one of my business partners, he asked me a question similar to that. He’s a musician. And I said, “I think for me music is prayer or meditation”, or whatever. It’s this place where I can go and be consumed and it reflects my mood. And that’s where I find the headspace, the clarity that I need. Since I have an 11-year-old, my music is no longer a priority. And so I have to also take myself out. So I would say the two things are music and nature. I like being outside. I always feel rejuvenated in Fall. It’s just the time of year that makes me feel like anything’s possible. And I don’t know why that is because things are dying around me, very weird. But I feel like this is the time of year when I want to be out in nature. So I think just challenging myself to get outside and be in the world is the best self-care for me.

Kim: Love that answer. Jonathan? I think you’re muted.

Jonathan: Unmute myself, that would help. I think we’ve got to wrap it up folks for the Podcast part of the show. We’ll be continuing. Nancy’s been gracious. She’s a busy lady. But she’s been gracious and she’s going to continue the conversation with us for a little while which you’ll be able to find on our YouTube channel that’s getting every week more subscribers. And you’ll find the interview on the WP website with a full transcription of the interview plus the bonus content. How can people find more about you Nancy and the agency? What’s the best way?

Nancy: Sure. Well, we are at always. You can check us out on the website. You can sign up for our newsletter. You can find out more about me at You can sign up for my newsletter. I think it’s called News from the Man Cave. And get monthly dribble from me, much like what you’ve just heard. So, thanks.

Jonathan: That was definitely not dribble. But I love the title of the newsletter. How can people find more about you Kim?

Kim: You can find me at and also at

Jonathan: And if you need to find more about me folks it’s really easy. I’m over the Internet like a rash. But seriously, you can get to me on my twitter which is @jonathandenwood, the WP-Tonic Facebook page or you can email me. I do answer my email, not straight away. But if it’s a personal message, not obviously written by a robot, I do reply if it’s a sensible question. And that’s [email protected] And please support our sponsor IntelligenceWP. It’s a great product. Go and have a look at it. And Twitter them that you heard you about it on the WP-Tonic show. And if you’re really generous and you really want to support the show, please go to iTunes and subscribe and leave us a comment because it really does help the show. We’ll be back next week with another great interview with a leader in Digital Marketing agency or as a WordPress junkie or somebody that we feel that will provide value to you the listener. And we’ll see you next week folks. Bye.

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