Leadership

This boss sees great results from encouraging employees to have side projects

Aaron Harvey, founding partner and executive creative director of Ready Set Rocket.
Ready Set Rocket
Aaron Harvey, founding partner and executive creative director of Ready Set Rocket.

Aaron Harvey isn't like most bosses. The executive creative director and founding partner of Ready Set Rocket, a digital marketing agency in New York, lets employees have side projects.

In fact, he encourages them.

The company has been ranked along side Squarespace and AOL as a top place to work, and Harvey's leadership style probably has something to do with it.

"If at the end of the day you're trying to cultivate leaders who are going to make change in your company," Harvey tells CNBC, "it's really important that you encourage them to find that inspiration, which in reality is going to come both inside and outside of the office."

Harvey, who is 35 years-old, is fine with his employees having a side hustle, so long as there's open conversation about it and it doesn't interfere with work.

"People need to explore the ideas in their head," he says. "Otherwise it's going to be a stifling environment."

The company offers employees a dollar-for-dollar matching program to take classes related to learning a new skill. Harvey says he also gives employees the option of some schedule flexibility to learn those skills or launch a side project.

One of the company's copywriters learned how to be a user experience designer, which helps the company when it comes to digital storytelling. A graphic designer took a long photography class and is now able to assist on client photo shoots.

Side projects as a leadership strategy

Harvey points to those examples to show that the strategy isn't just about being a cool boss. Employees' side projects and passions benefit the company.

"The model of someone staying within your company for 20 years is long dead," he says. "I think what you want is smart people in your business. You want to give them a way to reach their goals, grow personally."

Simply put, the setup promotes career growth within the company, which boosts employee retention. Happier workers are more productive and they are often able to apply their new skills on behalf of the business.

"I'm comfortable with some flexibility with work hours," Harvey says. "I'm not comfortable with someone coming into the office, using our machines for outside work, people missing deadlines."

"All that creativity and positive energy is going to come back to the office." -Aaron Harvey, Executive Creative Director and Founding Partner of Ready Set Rocket

The CEO admits that sometimes people do leave Ready Set Rocket to pursue their side projects.

"We've had a few people actually go on to create and innovate," Harvey says, citing a former creative director for the company who has moved on to work in social media.

The risk of providing this type of flexibility, however, is still worth it, the CEO says.

"I think if you treat people like adults, you'll find that all the experimentation that they do outside of the office, all that creativity and positive energy is going to come back to the office," he says. "And it's going to touch your workplace in a positive way."

When Harvey is not running his quickly expanding company, he has a side project of his own: a nonprofit on mental health called Intrusive Thoughts. And it has helped him, personally and professionally.

As he puts it, "Getting to work on my side project helped me redefine a bigger picture purpose."