As Make it Clear celebrates its 21st birthday, I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on a few significant practices I have learned over the years. Claiming 21 years of ownership would be a slight exaggeration. I did an initial management buy-out in 2007, so it’s only really been a 14-year journey for me. Over those 14 years, I have changed a lot as a person and a professional, and I wanted to reflect on some of those changes.
Learning to listen
I’m sure like many of you, I find it incredibly difficult to slow down for long enough to stop and really listen as I’m always thinking about the next job and the next big project. As part of my development, I have tried to work on active listening – that is, listening without formulating the next question in my head and listening without trying to come up with the solution. I continue to work on this every day, with the view to truly understand the other person. It is, like many things, a work in progress and surprisingly difficult, but something I encourage my team to be conscious of and practice. A useful piece of literature that has supported my development of this practice has been the Radical Candor, by Kim Scott. The techniques outlined in this book have assisted me with putting employee satisfaction at the forefront, and that can only take place when you truly listen and try to understand.
The importance of culture
In November 2018, my business partner of over 11 years left the agency to follow a change of direction in his career. During this transition period, I realised that for much of the 11 years I had owned an agency that I hadn’t always enjoyed working at. When my partner left, I did some soul searching around the values I would like my business to reflect. With one person in charge, this exercise is difficult but manageable. During the time as a partnership, this exercise had often been contentious and ultimately surfaced areas of misalignment that inevitably caused friction. You would have to ask my team, but to me, it feels like it’s easier for them to follow one point of direction, one vision and one set of values. As a result, this has made me a happier person and leader as well as, more relaxed about day-to-day working. More on these values are set out here and here.
A focus on my own behaviours
I constantly reflect on my own behaviors and ask myself, ‘do I have ownership of a situation?’, so if something is going wrong, I always look at myself first. I set the culture, strategy and process for the company, so these systems are ultimately my responsibility. The behaviors I work on are positivity, proactivity, optimism and staying calm. Ultimately you can’t talk your way out of a problem you behave yourself into.
Take a deep breath and go again
There is always something that goes wrong, a curveball, an unexpected event, a global pandemic… over the years I have just learned that’s the nature of business. I take a deep breath when these things unfold in front of me, then work on practical solutions. I try my best to maintain a regulated state where I can cope with setbacks, but like any normal human being, if I’m already in a stressful state that can be very difficult. Challenge is in the nature of owning a business. I plan, predict and forecast, but let’s be honest, you never really know which way the wind will take you.
Following my instincts
I can spot a red flag a mile away, but do I always act on that flag? I wish the answer was yes, however, I’m still learning what the best ways are to act and how to follow my instincts. I don’t always get it correct but I like to think I’ve learned for the next time.
It gets a bit lonely
I have an amazing team at Make it Clear, they are incredibly supportive and proactive. Even considering this, the risk and responsibility of owning a business can sometimes get lonely. To counter that, I’m a member of a number of business groups and I actively seek out conversations with owners of agencies larger than mine. It’s good to talk and let’s face it sometimes, it’s good to have a little moan.
One thing that’s core to my own belief system is being nice. I have had to toughen myself up over the years to be a little more robust in some situations, but genuinely caring about the people around me is something that I will always value incredibly highly. Taking the time to personally get to know my team, saying thanks, sending a little gift in the post, acknowledging emails, these little things are so important because we are in business with people, not robots, we need to be human.
Owning a business is an epic journey, I still have a lot to learn and over the last few years, I have really focused on finding that knowledge.
Happy birthday Make it Clear! I can’t believe I’m a proud mum of a 21-year-old already!