“No!!!! That’s not you!” Every fiber of my being was screaming at me as I looked at the paper in front of me.
It was a contract. An employment contract. A very generous employment contract. But there was one catch. My name in the legal document was accompanied by the designator “Employee.”
“You can’t sign this. This isn’t you,” the voice inside me continued.
It was fall 2010. I was truly at the fork in the road. I could continue down the path of being an employee again after 4 years of freelance consulting, or I could swallow hard and take the first step down another path. That path, more obscured with ‘danger’ and ‘warning’ signs along the way, meant truly going out on my own and building my own business. No more half-in, half-out freelancing when it’s convenient.
The idea of owning a business was appealing, if not a little scary. It was bound to have stressors and headaches and uncertainty. A financial roller coaster that I didn’t know much about. Yet, it spoke to my problem-solving side and it also addressed my sense of ownership.
But still, it seemed crazy. I had a very generous offer in front of me that would maintain the status quo. Who knew where the other path would lead? But the easy path didn’t feel as rewarding when compared to owning something, like my own work. So I took a deep breath, and stepped down the path of going my own way and starting my own business.
About two months later, in January 2011, Ignite 360 was launched with a mission to inspire action with our clients through deep insights, relevant strategy, and storycrafting.
From Founder to CEO, the evolution and growth is never-ending.
Here are my 4 of the lessons I’ve learned since then. I believe anyone in a leadership role can benefit from these lessons, whether you are an entrepreneur, small business owner, or part of a larger company or multi-national.
1. Your organization is alive and needs to be nurtured accordingly.
An organization is like an organism, it needs to be cared for and have attention paid to it throughout its life, otherwise it will end up stunted and malnourished.
At Ignite 360, our cultural health depends upon people, flexibility, engagement, and creativity.
We engage people who are smart, curious, enjoyable to work with, creative, and present a strong work ethic. While research acumen is important, I realized these intangible pieces could take the company from making assembly-line outputs to crafting results that were remarkable and would endure. Finding people who are the right fit takes time but yields tremendous dividends.
We are flexible in letting people work from home. Since we travel a lot for the type of work we do, it was important to me to be able to be at home when I was in my home city and let others do the same. This led to the formation of Ignite 360 as a virtual organization. It let us work with the people we wanted to work with rather than having to pull from a restricted geography. And it gives people greater flexibility in their day-to-day work/life schedule.
As a virtual company, there’s no water cooler to gather around so we’ve had to create a water cooler of our own. We were early users of both Box and Google Hangout for collaboration. The video call continues to be a great help to relieve the isolation of remote working - seeing your colleague’s reactions makes it easier to share thoughts, collaborate, and brainstorm together. We’ve leveraged video calls to hold “Virtual Happy Hours” as a way to gather and share what’s going on as well as discuss whatever is making us happy, inspired, or even our vacations plans. One benefit to remote work is that when we do see each other in the field, we are actually excited to be together. That enthusiasm is contagious and extends to our client engagement.
We’ve always made a point to enable and encourage creativity in storytelling and elsewhere in our work, whether that’s in the form of a new session activity, clever turn-of-phrase or metaphor in a report, or creating a new type of deliverable altogether. Part of this is due to our qualitative origins as well as the people that we work with. We also find our primary work to be incredibly stimulating given the range of topics we cover and people we meet. Internally we try to practice what we preach - sharing creative, thought-provoking pieces, often in the form of a “Friday snack.” Interesting images of products, services or experiences from our travels also spark inspiration and keep the new ideas flowing.
As a leader, the culture of your organization starts with you. Want a great company? Be great to work with. Be clear and consistent in your words and actions. Provide nurturing guidance, reward, and recognition. And don’t forget to smile and say ‘thank you’ from time to time.
2. Surround yourself with trusted advisors
I’m finally able to admit that I’m human, I don’t know everything and I make mistakes. I used to think I had to know everything and have all the answers, all the time. Not so. While leaders should appear confident and provide stability, they don’t have to be omniscient. Just like you can say to a client “let me think about that and get back to you,” it’s also ok to say that to a team member.
Some of my most trusted advisors are Ignite 360’s leadership team. I value and actively seek out their opinion and professional judgment. Ultimately the decision might be yours alone, but that doesn’t mean you can’t let others weigh in. And you, as the leader, need to keep yourself open and receptive to other people’s thoughts – particularly when they run contrary to your own. Without it, you won’t have an ‘informed’ decision.
In your organization, who are your advisors? It might be those senior to you, or an investor, or an outside consultant or friend whose opinion you trust and respect. What’s important is to have those perspectives available, to hear them out and listen. Even if it’s bad news or it’s tough to hear, it’s important to have those voices present at your table.
3. No sacred cows
I try not to have any sacred cows (aside from delivering quality work that inspires and treating each other with respect). I’m open to new ways of doing things and try to encourage that within the company. Doing the same thing the same way too many times can lead to a rut. It’s important for the health of your organization (remember, its alive), that you are open to keeping what works and evolving what doesn’t. This can lead to process changes as well as new products and services you wouldn’t have imagined before.
I’ve had to make some difficult decisions over the years, the types of decisions about our business model that impacted people in the short term. Those decisions, painful as they were, had to be made if the company was going to survive. By having a willingness to re-examine what we do, how we do it, and how our business is set up, we were able to adapt to shifts in our clients’ industry and achieve more stable and secure ground. With the help of trusted advisors we were able to identify the changes to make, do it quickly to minimize the pain and disruption for all of us, and then begin to move forward.
The next time change is coming at you, ask yourself if you are being resistant. If so, why? Be open to change. Don’t let ‘sacred cows’ get in the way when they don’t need to.
4. Trust your gut (and feed it some ‘intellectual probiotics’)
That voice I heard, telling me that the employment contract wasn’t me. That was my gut.
I notice that many people in corporate America admire the entrepreneur’s ability to ‘trust their gut.’ In reality, we should all trust our guts a little bit more. The ‘gut’ you are trusting is your intuition. It is informed by what you know as well as what you are sensing. So in order to keep your gut functioning, you need to feed it some “intellectual probiotics.” That is - empathy, data, and the time to let it all digest into meaning.
The actual secret to trusting your gut is not hearing what it’s telling you but taking the right course of action afterward.
For example, my gut told me to go out on my own which led me to start Ignite 360. Shortly after we launched, my intuition told me that there was a firehose being pointed at us in terms of work potential. I believed we could either drink from it or be blown over by it. I chose to drink.
We staffed up and made sure we had people available to handle the work coming in. In those very early days we didn’t have the systems and processes in place, so it led to some wild moments and late nights. Knowing what I know now, I might have pursued a different course that balanced the growth of our infrastructure with the growth of projects. But you don’t know what you don’t know until you know it. Fortunately, we survived, partly because we were able to adapt quickly. I remain truly grateful to our early clients for sticking with us and supporting us with return engagements. The ensemble members who went through that ‘trial by fire’ also deserve a lot of credit for leaning in like they had never had to before.
Now, 6 years later, my gut has more of those ‘intellectual probiotics,’ so I approach those situations from a more balanced perspective, leveraging empathy, data and the wisdom built up over time.
More than six years in, I know this to be true: building a business is not easy.
You make mistakes. The right way for some might be the wrong way for you. Take the time to determine what is right for you. Listen to the voice inside you. Whether you are starting a new venture or leading a team at a big company, be willing to learn, take advice from others, trust your gut and surround yourself with great people. That’s how you forge your own path.
What’s your experience been when it comes to your leadership role or starting a new business? I’d love to hear about the lessons you’ve learned.