Reflections on Leadership: A One-Year Anniversary
August 1, 2018
Today marks my one-year anniversary as a small business owner. I’ve never thought of myself as an entrepreneur, but I believe hard work can create opportunity. So when the chance to purchase Blue Flame Thinking came up, I took it.
To say I’ve learned a lot in the last year is a gross understatement. I’ve quickly learned there is more to leading a business than I could have imagined and that every person I’ve ever worked for actually taught me something.
A Newfound Respect for the Journey
I’m certainly not an expert on leadership. I don’t have any certifications, I’ve never had any formal training and I know there are a million LinkedIn articles on the top 10 things you can do to improve your leadership skills that I still haven’t done. But, I’ve come to believe that leadership develops through experiencing it from others, from both great and poor leaders. It’s something we absorb unconsciously and only later through reflection do we realize how profound its impact is.
What You Do Matters
From my junior year in high school all the way through college, I worked full time at a semi-truck repair shop. I delivered orders all over the state, loaded trucks and helped run a warehouse with my stepbrother. We often worked 10- to 12-hour days, lugging heavy parts and cleaning the worst messes in the shop. The owner was universally disliked by his competition, his employees and, at times, his own family. A few years ago he passed away, and, to my surprise, decades’ worth of employees came to his funeral. It was the most moving service I’ve ever attended. Over the course of his life, he had secretly helped countless people. He gave people a job even when, on paper, they were unemployable. He bought braces for children and paid hospital bills for people that couldn’t afford them. He used the opportunity of owning his own business to help people that no one else would. I keep a small picture from his funeral service on my office wall as a reminder that what you do with the opportunities provided to you is more important than the opportunity itself.
Leading Requires Investing in People
In today’s marketing and tech landscape, it’s rare to hear of shops using an apprenticeship approach or investing in growing people into the roles they need. Instead, organizations hire people for the capabilities they possess at that moment. I was woefully unqualified for my first job building enterprise-grade software at an agency. I didn’t oversell myself in the interview process; my future boss saw something and decided to take a chance by investing in me. I saw my boss do this time and again with people—identify aptitude and passion, then lean in and invest in it. It didn’t always pay off, but more often than not, both the employee and the company benefited immensely. Eventually, I came to realize that leading by giving people the room to grow and supporting them is critical. Every day, 90 percent of our intellectual property walks out the door and goes home for the night. Investing in them makes sense.
Leading Isn’t Always Doing
Quite often, deciding what not to do is more important than figuring out how to get something done. Trust is required to step back and let others handle critical things for you, because the truth is, as a business owner, you can’t do everything. This effort can be especially hard because you understand the risk of failure better than anyone else, and you can’t expect anyone else to ever truly understand it, regardless of how transparent you are with your team. Our previous owner put a lot of faith and trust in me six years ago. I know there had to have been moments when he felt things could have gone smoother or faster. To his credit, he never stepped in and pushed the processes. Instead, he concentrated on the things he could do to support me, allowing me the opportunity to grow from a manager into a leadership position and, eventually, to purchase the agency.
Look Left, Right and Then Forward
Of course, I still have miles to go on this leadership journey, but ownership has taught me that having a peer group is critically important. Talking with other agency owners and directors as they struggle with the same issues and challenges helps to normalize those struggles. And, of course, there’s plenty to learn from each other’s experiences as well. I expect that over the next few years everything I thought I had learned will be flipped on its head as our industry continues to evolve and younger generations shift the emphasis of what we find valuable in the workplace.
Over the last 12 months, I’ve been both thrilled and humbled by the trust and seeming affirmation that the team here at Blue Flame Thinking has given me as we’ve headed off in a new direction together. Here’s to another great year of learning how to do things better!