If I knew then what I know now is a weekly series of bylines from small agency executives about lessons learned in building their shops.
We’re 12 years in at HUSH. We’re no longer the new kids on the block. We’re also not kids anymore. It’s funny what time does to your point of view. Hard knocks and mistakes are the requisite headwinds that provide invaluable experience, knowledge and ultimately, confidence. Now, we know our subject matter top to bottom, but we remain humble with the inherent naivety of operating in a constantly changing industry. There are perennial and enduring truths, however. Hopefully, these are some.
It's not a straight line
If you’ve ever read a business book, or heard your favorite entrepreneurs speak, or tuned into a podcast about founder stories, you may have noticed that it all seems to make so much sense. It’s hard not to: Likely, they are successful professionals--maybe even tech billionaires--and their stories echo with an undertone of knowing this was going to happen even before it did. Sometimes, their stories are packaged, neat and tidy, in a sequence of quick-read chapters, or the perfect stage presentation. It's their history. But it's their history in retrospect.
I’ve come to realize that in reality, and in real-time, running a business isn’t a linear path. It only looks that way in hindsight. Hoping to find the exact path and the exact target week over week, quarter over quarter, is simply impossible. Despite knowing how to read the stars, sailors had to tack with the wind, leaving a wake like a zig-zag. Similarly, we had to continuously aim at key targets, but know how to course correct. The mark of a really strong business leader is to have a clear vision, to share that vision openly, but to be ready to adjust it mid-flight despite the implications
Now I understand that running a business is like creative strategy. You don’t need to know exactly what it is just yet, but you do need to be able to cut out 95% of the other options on the table. Just head in “that” direction. Go north. Or northeast. Just don’t go south.
Define your culture before others define it for you
When we first started and got off the ground, we had a lot of fun. We stayed at the studio late. We listened to music. We went out at night. We did it again. I thought this general fun work/play vibe was our “culture.” It turned out that wasn’t the case. It was just what we happened to be doing.
Culture, it turns out, is defined by the worst behavior the company’s leadership will tolerate from its employees (and I’d add clients, in fact). So if you let things go unchecked, culture is defined for you. In reality, culture should be what you say are ideal behaviors, outcomes, and shared goals. It defines what warrants praise and congratulations, as well as what is considered absolutely unacceptable. When you are young and immature, or lack confidence and vision, it’s hard to draw firm lines. I’ve been there.
Every day, I’m faced with the opportunity to draw the line in ways to help promote and better define our culture--to reinforce behaviors that positively reflect our team’s values and motivate our clients to work with us.
So, do the work. Put it on paper. Share it with the team. Reinforce good behaviors. Snuff out bad ones. Own it.
Find your flow state. Forget everything else
What can you do better than anyone else in your organization? What can you do that no one else can do? I bet whatever that particular thing is, it doesn’t feel like “work” when you’re doing it. The more you can adjust your role to be in that mode of work, the better your own productivity and state of mind. Delegate the things that feel unreasonably difficult. There’s probably someone waiting for that responsibility who can perform the tasks easily, because that’s their special skill, their own flow state.
This optimization of skills and behaviors of your team--and more importantly, for yourself--is the mark of the best leadership around. Put your ego, past roles, and responsibilities aside. Just because you did it before (because you had to, when you first started) doesn’t mean you should do it now.
When my business partner and I had children, we thought the company would suffer. But we hired in the help we knew we would need. And then when we had our second kids (our wives were due within a week of each other, also known as “Babypocalpyse” at the company) we thought the wheels would certainly come off. But again, while scary at the time, we hired in the roles we knew would take critical responsibility off our plates. Upon our return, we plugged into a more evolved organization, with a more distributed ecosystem of responsibility and ownership. People stepped up, ran with the ball--and some never stopped running.
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The article If I knew then what I know now ... I'd sail more than strategize first appeared on Ad Age.