We had another member of the wonderful ONQ family on the podcast: Sean Hammerle, who is the company’s Chief Operating Officer and an award-winning motivational leader and speaker. I first met Sean back in June of 2022 when he was awarded the title of Best Contact Center Executive at The Contact Center World Awards in Orlando, Florida. The win came as no surprise—Sean is one of the most authentic, engaging, and hilarious people I’ve ever met in this business. He brings a very genuine and personal element to his leadership, which is incredible when you consider he leads 600 employees across three countries!
Over the course of the podcast, we discuss Sean’s journey as a gay Asian-American executive navigating new cultures, his focus on building a culture of family at ONQ, his dedication to mentoring employees even when they leave, and a lot more. If you haven’t listened already, I strongly urge you to on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. For those more inclined to reading, here are a few highlights from my interview with Sean Hammerle.
(Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.)
Amy Bennet (AB): As I do with each of our guests, I want to jump in and learn a little bit about your journey. Because nobody wakes up as a 13-year-old and says, “Oh my gosh, I want to be in the contact center space.” So tell me how you landed here, Sean.
Sean Hammerle (SH): You’re right. I didn’t really know anything about contact centers early on. Before joining ONQ, I spent most of my adult life in politics and executive coaching. And then I met my husband, Alan. We had both just sold our businesses and he was looking to retire. I just wanted to do something different.
So after moving to Paris and falling in love with Alan, I ended up starting a business with him. I realized I could use my experience training high-level executive leaders to train entry-level people. Eventually, I took over that aspect of the company and grew into my present role of Chief Operating Officer.
I believed that I could take everything I’ve learned in my career of building good leaders and apply it to ONQ so we could say our leadership started from the first position available. And so Lucas Fuentes, who was on your show earlier, started out as an agent. I hired him, I trained him, I mentored him. And he went from being an agent on the floor to being a supervisor, and now he’s Vice President of Training and Development.
AB: It’s an incredible story of growth. I’m so glad you brought up Lucas because I wanted to talk to you about the culture at ONQ. Can you talk to me about that?
SH: That is something I am super proud of—we call ourselves the ONQ family for a reason.
When you start a business, it’s a 24/7 endeavor. Our employees would make jokes when they would drive by the office on a Sunday and see my car there. Because that’s what you do when you start a business. But when we were in Panama away from our real families, those same employees eventually became our family.
And that speaks to how we built the culture. I had to make these people understand: You guys are my family. I don’t get to go home this weekend to see my mom and dad. That’s just not an option. And so we quickly learned to treat each other with the love and respect that we all deserve. The average age of our employees is 24 years old, so when you consider the size of our company, I feel like the father of 700 kids sometimes. It’s this family-focused culture that led our employees to come up with the line, “The biggest family in Santiago,” which we put on posters, banners, and all over social media.
Every time a new group of employees comes on board, we have a core values meeting before they start. I tell every group that if our values don’t resonate with you, then we are not the company for you. We love and believe in everyone in this family—I don’t care what religion you are, what you believe in, your ethnicity, or anything. But understand one thing that everybody needs to know: Alan Nottingham, the CFO of our company, is my business partner as well as my life partner. And if you have a problem with that, this is not the company for you.
We’ve come a long way from that kind of stigma as a company. Because when we started, we didn’t know how Latin America would receive two openly gay business owners. So for a long time, we weren’t openly gay. But one day in 2013, a trainee came into my office and asked, “Mr. Sean, can I talk to you? How long have you and Mr. Alan been together?” I was so taken aback. He went on, “I noticed during the training that you were both wearing the same ring.” And I was like, “Oh my God, how stupid are we for this?”
AB: Wow, he gets points for attention to detail!
SH: Yes, I was really amazed with him. And then I was able to share with him that Alan and I were together. And we’ve been very open and proud about it since then.
Another time, I had a gentleman come into my office and start crying because he was moving to the city and quitting ONQ. And I was like, “What can I do to keep you here?”
He said, “I just came out to my father last night, and he told me that he would much rather have a dead son than a gay son.”
And I just started crying. He went on, “I look at you, and I want to be you one day, and I know that if I go to the city, I’ll have a shot at acceptance.” I hated losing him, but it’s those kinds of moments that show why the culture of our company is so important. It’s been quite a journey.
AB: Well, we’ve done several podcast interviews now, but I haven’t wanted to cry like that up until now. Thank you for sharing that. You’re not just saying your company is a family—you’re really living it.
Let’s talk about mentorship. You’ve talked in the past about mentoring people who are going to leave your business. I wanted to hear that again from you. Because it’s such a powerful story of helping people pursue their dreams, even if it takes them away from your company.
SH: Yes, of course. There was an agent that I truly loved. He was just a great kid and a hard worker. But one day, he came in the office and said that he had applied at Copa Airlines to be a flight attendant. But there was a catch: He couldn’t pass the swim test.
He knew that I had been a triathlete and triathlon coach, so he asked if I would help him. And of course, I did. My friends were like, “You know if he passes this test, he’s going to quit, right?” And I just didn’t see anything wrong with it. If someone who works for me finds something that can give them the kind of happiness that I feel every day coming to this job, I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure they get it.
So yes, I helped him. He got the job. And I was so excited for him. Alan and I even ran into him at the airport in his uniform, and he took a picture with us. It’s important to love your employees as much on the way out as on the way in, whether they are with you forever or just a short while. Because that’s how we treated this employee when the pandemic hit. Flights were grounded and he didn’t have a job. So when he wanted to come back, I took him back in a heartbeat!
AB: Isn’t that the best compliment? The boomerang employee?
SH: To me? Yes. And we have so many. I always tell people that boomerangs are a huge compliment to a company’s culture. I mean, why would anybody want to go back to a job that they didn’t enjoy, right?
This article represents just a snippet of the wonderful chat I had with Sean. Do yourself a favor and check out the episode to get even more inspirational stories and actionable insights. Sean really is doing his part to change the way we think about corporate culture for the better, and we can’t wait to sit down with him again.