Over the last two months, I have participated in a marathon e-mail thread with a business man whom I have never met in person. For reasons known only to God, he has been reading my blog almost since day one although he has never been involved in an ad agency or the media. He comments from time to time directly to me and asks interesting and sometimes very penetrating questions.
As the years have passed, he has opened up to me on a variety of subjects. With his permission, he is allowing me to recount an approach that he has taken to running his company that is quite different from that of mainstream North America businesses.
I will let him tell the story with a few edits to insure anonymity: “About 13 years ago, I was riding high and began to think that I had the game figured out. I ran a solid little company with 22 employees. We were profitable, I thought ethical, and we had found a solid niche in a growing area of commerce. Then, the tech revolution invaded our space and business started to drift away. We still were in the black but my self confidence was crushed and I began to have some sleepless nights. After a few months of careful study, I made a decision that everyone, even my wife, thought was complete madness. I appointed an outside board of directors of three people.”
“When I first told a few close family and friends about my plan, everyone was skeptical. They said that I was not a big company and an outside board was frivolous and expensive. I felt it would be the only way to make my company grow or perhaps save it. What I had noticed was that many American firms had a CEO who put cronies on his board. The CEO called all the shots and, when you looked at it, interlocking directorates were a real thing. Your buddies gave you a big bonus regardless of corporate performance and they received fat fees and perks for being a director. Clearly, I was not going that route nor could I afford it. What I did know was that I had gaps in my understanding of the business world--big gaps. I needed a few people not in the trenches with me day to day who would look at my company with fresh and honest eyes. I spent a year looking for the right team and then made my move.”
“My board, in addition to me, consisted of three outsiders-- a retired C.P.A with a pristine reputation, an itinerant tech savvy 32 year old who was abrasive but brilliant, and a fellow who ran a mid-sized ad agency. I told them that I could not pay them much (I had budgeted a total outlay of the cost of one employee including benefits) and I would put them all to work. They were not there to rubber stamp my suggestions. Finally, for the ad guy, a big caveat. He was a friend and I do not hire friends. So, the deal was that he would NEVER get my business if our advertising budget grew to be substantial. All agreed to the terms.”
“The old C.P.A. stopped in to the shop quite regularly. Our financial person was young and had fantastic detail orientation. She was really defensive about his presence. The old boy handled himself with grace. He taught our CFO some cash management skills that she would never have attained working solo. Also, he helped with negotiations on insurance and other vendors, even driving a bargain on our lease. Our tax returns were done by him as well. Finally, he worked with a major firm regarding our 401k plan and he personally presented the options to the staff. Some 92% of the team joined the plan. Is your participation rate that high? The CFO realized the board member was a huge asset. He encouraged her to get a graduate degree in accounting and I paid for it.”
“The tech guy kept us current. Every time we thought that we were “cutting edge” he leveled us with tart comments about how many had been doing that for a few years. The whole staff warmed to him over time but he did not suffer fools well. We learned a lot from him and he introduced us to several consultants who also helped us.”
“The ad guy was great as he really knew a lot about marketing. He would tell us what he was doing in new media and admitted that if some of his smaller clients would hire a smart young person interested in social media that would not need his group at all. Also, he had research resources regarding our competition that proved to be invaluable to us. And, no, we never gave him our growing account.”
“After a few years, each of the board members was given a (small) piece of our firm. With skin in the game, they became even more dedicated to us. My heir apparent is a lady who now sits on our board as well. Today, we have 41 full time employees and bill four times what we did 13 years ago. Not bad! I am no genius but the smartest move that I ever made was to admit that I needed help that was unbiased and never political.”
Okay, a great and true story. Could you do this or should you do this? Probably not. You may not have the money to execute a similar plan or you may not have such illustrious and available talent in your hometown. When I floated the idea to a small agency head, she said she did a similar thing on a much smaller scale. “We all have contacts whom we can go to for advice without formalizing things. Most of us do not use them enough. I have found one way to work it is to let people know how much I appreciate their counsel. Some I take to a nice lunch or a round of golf at my club. Others I invite to my home a few times a year and to any large parties that my husband and I throw. A few showed up for a college graduation party for my daughter and gave embarrassingly expensive gifts. An older “go-to person” once told me he had done everything he wanted to do in life except go to the NCAA Final Four. Amazingly, I was invited a few years back and sent him and his son. To say that I have a friend for life is an understatement.”
I have sometimes written of my “kitchen cabinet” whom I go to for quotes for Media Realism, help with a project, or for an opinion or update on a topic. And, yes, there are people who come to me as a springboard for ideas. As John Donne put it, “No man is an island.”
So, clearly, we all have gaps. Recognize it, reach out, and you may change your situation for the better.
If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org