Awful to Awesome: 10 Secrets to Rebuilding Your Business in 7 Months

In May of this year, I needed inspiration and motivation to go to work in the morning. As a business owner, quitting my job wasn’t an option, so I elected to fix my business by developing a mission statement of sorts. I outlined my process in the article, Unhappy With Your Business? Create a Credo! and shared key insights from my journey in another article three months later, Living the Anvil Credo: 10 Lessons in 90 Days. In the months following the penning of the Anvil Credo, I’ve managed to turn my company around with the help of a committed team, advisory board, supportive clients, strategic partners, family and friends. I’d like to share ten lessons I’ve learned that have helped transform Anvil from awful to awesome in seven months.

Paint a Plan

As a long-time entrepreneur with a business degree, I’ve read many books, attended workshops and discussed strategic planning with a variety of advisors and business owners. My experience is that business plans are often immediately obsolete and are rarely referred to after completion. Instead of spending the time to create a 100 page business plan, I’m a fan of following the Painted Picture process I first learned about in Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO). The concept is relatively simple: paint a picture of what your business will look like at its pinnacle and reverse-engineer by month and week to today so you have a roadmap to get to your end goal. In that regard, I realized Anvil needed to be stronger, smarter and more solution-oriented. To better serve the needs of our clients, we evolved Anvil from a digital to integrated marketing agency while maintaining our core focus on search, social and analytics. To ease the integration process, I’ve ensured we’ve addressed key elements of any successful business outlined in this article, The 5 W’s of a Winning Startup. Through this experience, we’ve achieved new levels of harmony, alignment and inspiration that will guarantee we live our purpose towards our vision through our mission and Credo.

Take Care of Business

With a new team and expanded service offering, it is easy to get distracted by the details of operating a larger entity. Fortunately, I’ve learned to maintain discipline and follow my own best practices outlined in the article, The Three F’s Every Successful Entrepreneur Should Master. We’ve built new process into our business (meetings, documents and tools) that force us to stick to business fundamentals (producing quality work and getting paid for the value we create), focus (on delighting and elevating our clients) and future (living our purpose, mission, vision and Credo). To maximize client and employee retention, we also continue to solicit feedback and make sure we have fun throughout our journey.

Fear is the Enemy, not Change

One of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned the past 90 days is that people (clients and employees alike) fear change. Unfortunately, this has been a costly lesson, as the entire purpose of The Credo was to upgrade the quality of work we produced for clients. Despite our best efforts to delight and elevate, a select number of clients left anyway, citing “too much change” as the reason. Essentially, a few of our larger clients would have preferred status quo (second rate service and results) to the alternative upgrade.

While I understand change is inherently disruptive and we did fall short of our potential on occasion, I’ve been surprised by the level of discomfort and dissatisfaction that was created by upgrading the team. The real enemy should be fear itself, not the act of change. Regardless, we moved forward with key employee upgrades and hoped that clients would trust that we were doing the right thing and they would benefit tremendously in the long run. So far, that has been the case, and the clients that stuck around are experiencing significant improvement in levels of account service and results. Of course I never like to see clients leave, and we do our best to keep them. In fact, I’ve written an article on that very topic as well, Four Strategies To Keep Your Clients From Firing You.

Flush the System

In order to live our mission, vision and values, we had to filter out employees for whom The Credo did not resonate. Fortunately, this happened relatively quickly and was largely a process of self-selection. Old employees that were turned off by the Credo were replaced by new individuals that were conversely inspired. And those who were not honest with themselves or with management about their level of commitment to The Credo, were replaced with new talent that better fit our needs and expectations. A benefit of overhauling the team was that bad habits, traits and baggage disappeared. A good example of this was the change in office culture.  We went from an office culture fraught with passive aggressive behavior and drama to an environment full of trust and respect.

One unfortunate side effect (mentioned above) was that certain clients were understandably upset by personnel changes to their accounts and rather than give us an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to quality service and work, they took their chances with alternative vendors. The good news is that we’ve replaced frustrated former clients with delighted new clients. Another lesson we learned in the process was that talent, formerly client-side, struggle to perform at a level required to be an effective agency employee (at least at Anvil). I’ve touched on this issue in the article, Good Enough: Agency vs. In-House Marketing Career.

Character in Crisis

One trend I’ve noticed through this experience, is that younger employees (typically identified as Gen Y) have no idea how to properly leave a company (yes, there is a right and wrong way to do this). This is particularly surprising considering the relatively small size of our city and industry and the power of karma. Regardless of whether or not they quit or were fired, a vast majority left on a sour note. Character is defined as what a person does in a time of crisis. In the case of former employees, character was consistently suspect and resulted in tremendously disappointing behavior. In one case, a former employee shut down client accounts and changed passwords. The ‘sabotage’ stressed our client relationship, but we navigated through the unfortunate situation. In another situation, a long-time employee deleted years of emails in their email outbox, making it impossible to track down documents and client conversations that only existed in their account.

Most painfully, one of our non-performing employees (who were subsequently replaced) contacted our clients (without our permission) and announced their departure before we could reach out ourselves.  This caused confusion, frustration and ultimately the departure of a few clients. Whether intentional or not, the collective lack of integrity led me to believe I did not have the right employee on board in the first place. Through a modified hiring and management process, we now regularly monitor the current team to evaluate their character, although we doubt they are capable of such reckless subterfuge. We have also made changes to our structure, procedures and exit process to minimize harm to Anvil employees and clients in the future, from departing employees should they show similarly disturbing traits.

Listen, Learn & Apply

I’ve always been a proponent of listening to feedback from everyone around me. During the past few months of change, I’ve listened particularly closely to departing employees and clients willing to provide thoughtful insights. More important than listening is applying learning, as I’ve outlined in this article, Three Tips for Getting the Most from your Business Mentor. One example of useful feedback from a departing employee was that I should be more involved in the hiring process. While this may seem obvious, particularly for a small agency, I’d let my senior team drive the hiring process for years with little-to-no oversight or involvement. Since then, I’ve been active in recruiting and hiring employees, and the quality of talent has improved dramatically as a result. More importantly, we’ve hired a group of individuals that are much more comfortable coming to me with questions, suggestions and concerns, which has aided in our ability to make positive change and create a stronger connection between management and the rest of the team.

Surf the Pipeline

The Anvil team and clients endured a significant amount of change over the past seven months, no question. One side effect of meaningful turnover (over 100% since April) is that it creates a mentality of instability. The more people that quit or were fired, the more the remaining team considered their options. The only leverage we had as a management team was to create a deep bench of replacement talent and prospects in the sales pipeline. While it takes time and effort and you rarely get where you want, we made significant progress and were able to make sure each replacement employee or client was an upgrade. Of course you don’t need to experience the amount of change we navigated at Anvil to justify a bench and big pipeline. We plan to continue to identify backup talent for every position in the company, and worse case is we hire through growth instead of replacement down the road. Speaking of growth, I’ve written an article on building a solid sales pipeline in this article, Your Guide to the new Sales Funnel.

Enhance Infrastructure

Less than three weeks after presenting The Credo to the Anvil team, half my employees were gone. That meant I had to replace half my team in a hurry. It also meant that I lost most of the institutional knowledge of how the team serviced accounts along with their departure. It became more challenging as we surpassed the 100 percent turnover mark in the following months. The silver lining in losing so much knowledge at one time was that it freed us up to re-invent, refresh and improve on previous processes, documents and tools. While it has been a good deal of work, I believe we’re better off with our new structure and procedures. The new team has greater levels of engagement due to their involvement in shaping the new Anvil. Throughout the overhaul process, we left no stone unturned and have made significant improvements across the company. I touch on some of the core areas we optimized in this article, Building a Successful Business with The 7 P’s.

Leverage Strengths & Styles

While I’ve been a big believer in evaluating, understanding and managing individuals based on their personality and communication preferences, it became apparent that we needed to start from scratch with an all new team. The first step was for each employee to take an Insights Profile assessment in order to understand how to communicate and motivate them. The second step was to have each employee take a StrengthFinder assessment to understand their strengths and talents. The third and important step was to host an all-company workshop to ensure everyone shared their insights and results with each other. The final step was to map the teams’ strengths and communications styles and use it as a management tool. Additionally, we evolved our hiring process to evaluate a potential employee’s fit within our structure and culture based on their strengths and style. I’ve outlined key elements of our hiring process in this article, Hire for Culture, Talent and Traits, not Skills, Knowledge or Experience. Since incorporating the Insights and StrengthFinder knowledge into our organizational structure and hiring process, turnover has reduced to near zero and should remain there for the foreseeable future.
Keep the Faith

Having been an employee, co-founder and founder of various organizations, I’ve seen it all. That being said, I’ve never had to navigate a situation like The Credo experience. While I’ve learned a great deal and am better for it, it has been extremely taxing, both personally and professionally. There were dark days where everyone seemed to question my sanity, logic and commitment. For example, I’ve recognized that our industry has evolved and Anvil hadn’t kept to the forefront. We are now competing with hundreds if not thousands of digital and traditional agencies for work, which requires us to elevate as outlined in this article, What Matters when Selecting a Digital Agency: Get Beyond Clicks and Conversions. We’re also competing with the trend of building teams in-house. Of course I’ve written an article about that topic, In-house Agency vs. Outsourcing Digital Marketing. Fortunately, my support group and new team helped me navigate the Abyss and now I look back grateful for the humbling experience. I was able to keep the faith in myself as a critical few maintained their faith in me. It helped to have a well-defined purpose, vision, mission, values and of course The Credo to aid in navigating troubled waters. On my “hero’s journey” I’m not yet to my defining moment, but it feels good to know I’m on that path. As the saying goes, when you see a fork in the road, as I have, take it.

While most entrepreneurs see their business as more of a lifestyle or child, it is just a business, which means you have to be able to make the difficult calls and be able to step back or move forward when it feels impossible to do so. I’m somewhere in the middle, as I do see Anvil as my greatest achievement (and failure) yet, It’s Just Business and a means to an end: create a lasting legacy as well as financial security for my family and those around me that choose to join me on this journey from awful to awesome.

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