July 6, 2012

One Firm, One Voice

Filed under: Leadership — Joe Grant @ 12:00 pm

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Our business attracts big egos. We’re all about opinions and judgments. That’s the wrong tone for the target audience. . . The logo’s too small. . . It’s off strategy. . . Maybe that’s why “teamwork” gets loads of lip service but when you look under the hood, it’s hardly there at all at most agencies.

Perhaps because it’s not natural.

You see, people are individuals; they focus on self-interest first. What’s in it for me? Any kindergarten teacher will tell you how tough it is getting kids to share and play nicely. You can talk all you want about man’s noble nature, egalitarianism, generosity… but those are learned behaviors.

Nevertheless, to avoid complete chaos in ad agencies and most other enterprises, we create teams – groups of individuals who pool their talents and energy to achieve specific goals. Teams are simply egos in harness.

Accenture, at least when it was still Andersen Consulting, tried to resolve the conflict between self-interest and corporate objectives with their One Firm policy which states that mutual long-term best interests outweigh self-serving and short-term decisions. People employed there say it works. If a local Accenture client at a US office, for instance, is referred for an overseas project to the London office, the British folks do the work as if it were their own client. Because it is. It’s a cultural mentality that says judgments and decisions are all about the greater good – what’s in the best interests of the firm, not the individual.

Great theory, but will it work in an ego-driven ad agency? Yes, I think so. If you keep a few principles in mind.

First, there must be a specific, overarching goal – something everyone understands, can envision, and own. It’s got to be clear, laser-sharp, penetrating, and – here’s the part often missing – it must mean something to everyone in the place.

As part of our diagnostic work we frequently interview staffers about their agency’s goal. You know what we hear? “Goal? What goal? I didn’t know the agency had one besides making more money for the owner(s).”

It’s shameful.

Think for a moment what the agency’s revenue growth means day-to-day to an admin, the junior copywriter you hired last week, or an AE handling a medium-sized account. How do they personally experience motivation and satisfaction from the corporate “make more money” goal?

Please don’t answer, They collect a salary and get to keep their jobs. If you honestly think that’s the big motivator for people, dust off your notes on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Treat people at the lowest level of personal need and that’s how they’ll behave – groveling and scratching for food and shelter and certainly not caring much about loftier goals.

Clear corporate imperatives compel. Classic examples include NASA’s goal in the ‘60’s of getting a man to the moon and back safely, Wozniak’s and Jobs’ vision of a computer on every worker’s desk (at a time when they were the size of a garage), or my favorite: Daniel Burnham, the renowned city planner responsible for Chicago’s magnificent lakefront boulevards and parks, who said, Make no small plans – they have no power to stir men’s souls.

But what about making money?

Dollars are the result of achieving the goal; they’re satisfiers not motivators. If you’re making a nice salary yourself but occasionally experience mild depression or disillusionment, re-read the last sentence. Money does not/will not make you happy – Maslow proved that conclusively.

Another thing to keep in mind is the agency goal should be both challenging and achievable. I call them “gulp goals,” something that when you say it out load the first time almost makes you gulp. There ought to be a little gasp in the room. . .  something that will stir men’s souls. You must believe and get everyone else to believe that it can be done. Some examples: Go from #9 to the top 3 in your market by the end of ’14. Sweep the local Addy awards. Or snag the largest local account from your arch competitor.

Goals like that transcend and neutralize energy-draining ego skirmishes and personal agendas. They provide focus, rally the troops, and unite egos so they pull in one direction. And that brings us back to the One Firm idea: Speak with one voice.

Goals which personally engage everyone minimize petty dustups and distractions and keep people pulling in the same direction. Everyone in your agency should be able to easily speak about (1) what the agency’s goal is and (2) what it personally means to him/her.

You always know an agency culture is strong when you walk the halls, choose a few people at random, and they all say essentially the same thing about what the agency’s trying to do – with one voice. It makes it fun to come to work when everyone’s aiming for something they believe in; certainly better than merely toiling daily to make the agency (or some guy at the end of the hall) more money.

And if someone asks, What’s in it for me? your job is to remind everyone over and over what the goal is! Think of Moses in the desert retelling how wonderful the land of milk and honey would be. Not a bad place to look forward to if you’ve been choking on dust in the desert for 40 years.

So get a goal – make it clear, specific, measurable, and check that it makes you gulp a little. Then make sure everybody understands it and that it means something to each and every one personally.

That way instead of trying to manage isolated egos charging off in different directions, you’ll be holding the reins of a few self-actualized teams stretching for and reaching their objectives.

OK. . . one of the goals can certainly be making more money.

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