When your company is growing quickly there comes a time when you need to give up some control and hire new leaders and managers. This week we discuss introducing new managers to your company and finding the right fit for your team. We also reluctantly acknowledge that off-site meetings in the woods can actually be beneficial.
Rich Ziade I have never been told by Best Buy customer service that they have been disappointed in me and in how I installed the SSD.
Paul Ford I, I got that email. [Rich laughs] [music fades in, plays alone for 16 seconds, ramps down]
RZ Hi Paul.
PF Hey Richard, how are you doing over there?
RZ I’m doing well and welcome everyone to the Postlight Podcast, formerly known as Track Changes.
PF Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s right. Poslight Podcast, we’re here!
RZ We’re a digital product studio that used to be headquartered in New York. We’re still kind of headquartered in New York. We’re sort of spread about all over the place these days.
PF Maaann. I want to go back to the office and it looks like it’s going to be awhile.
RZ Well, I dunno. We can go back. Stop by…
PF You can go visit. Yes, you can safely visit now, but it’s not the same as… [yeah] just, you know what I mean? That seltzer machine, which I’m sure now just distributes Legionnaires’ disease after sitting there for five years. [Rich laughs] Um, boy that was good!
RZ I want to shift gears for a second, Paul, and just step back. Sometimes I like to step back and look at the factual situation in front of us and acknowledge that some bat shit stuff is happening.
PF It is banana cakes in the world these days.
RZ Banana cakes in the world these days. But I want to just talk about hiring a manager!
PF Oh, interesting. Alright. Let’s talk about it. Something we have to do from time to time. Well, what altitude are we talking?
RZ I mean, here’s the thing it’s worth noting, right? That, you know, we’ve said this at Postlight and I think we may have regretted establishing that precedent that we can’t really hire anyone too senior at Postlight. They have to come up through the ranks. We’ve said that out loud a few times, because we just assume that it’s going to go horribly. And here’s why, right? Imagine you are the leader of a nation and, and you weren’t elected cause it’s your nation. You’re a dictator. You’ve decided to, instead of having elections for, for the different mayors of the different cities, you pick the person and then you deploy that person and give them enormous power over the population of each city. So my cousin will be the mayor of ”Happy Town” because I have power and I’m going to give him power and I’m not going to ask you, ”Hey, is this cool?” There will not be a vote. It will not be. It’s actually incredibly…I think this is fundamentally what’s going on. It’s incredibly undemocratic. Not that democracy [sure] has anything to do with running a business, but it’s incredibly under democratic to bring someone in, Knight them, give them power and say, you will rule over 8 to 12 people.
PF One of the functions of democracy is that you get to know the person and understand what their promises are [mhm] before…before they’re put into a position of power. Okay? Like business just doesn’t work that way. Like if you, it would be very, what democracy does is say, and look, look at our presidential elections. It’s like 18 to 24 months of a hundreds of millions of people getting to know an individual before they vote for it. So that if you’re making a 60 person company can not make decisions along those lines, it is not possible. Like we wouldn’t survive because we don’t have that time to build those relationships.
RZ No, you hope, right? That, and we, we have like, we, we very, we have nine partners at Postlight now. We’re actually kind of proud of the fact that we do look very carefully at the people that are excelling in the org. And we react quickly to people that are doing well and reward them and give them more ownership and a wider terrain to oversee because we badly want it to come from within, because it does work the way you’re describing which they do get to know him. I have this obviousness standard. When people, if you announce a big promotion and everyone is like, of course, then you know, it’s right.
RZ If people react with, “What?! Are you kidding?” It’s easy to run that, run that scenario, right? To see how people are going to react. But when you bring someone in from the outside and look, I don’t think it’s possible to scale a business purely internally, by promoting people up through the ranks. It’s just too hard to do. It’s just too hard to do.
PF There’s also, there’s a real risk there too, where you’re, look what I’ve learned from Postlight, your company is going to grow in ways that you and your team and that’s includes you and me didn’t anticipate. And we don’t always necessarily have the right skills to capture and manage the growth. And [mhm] we can do really, really well, but they’re there they’re, there comes these moments where there’s five or six things going on at once. And everybody either has to really learn a lot of new skills very quickly or you want to bring somebody in.
RZ When you bring someone in, do you feel like, let me have you meet the entire team cause this is too senior of a role? Does that work? Meaning the team you’re going to oversee. That’s awkward, isn’t it?
PF Those are the rules, right? There’s different. There’s different approaches. There’s the autocratic approach of like here’s Jill, Jill just came in. She was highly recommended. She was doing something similar over at “Lightpost”. And now she’s at Postlight and we’re going to give her our allegiance and we’re going to move forward. And then you say…
RZ She’s a director or something…
PF Yeah, yeah! Jill, you have, these are your metrics for success. Good luck. We, you know, we’ve got your back. I will meet with you for an hour every week or two. [mhm] And Jill goes, okay. And then she’s off to the races. Now in a client service firm in some ways, especially if you’re client facing, it’s very easy to, see agencies move fast. I don’t think people who don’t work at agencies don’t understand, like you can rise in the ranks very, very quickly. And you work in lots of different ways because projects come and go very quickly or you can move from project to project. You can add value in a lot of different ways, [mhm] on a lot of different things. And that’s built into the culture. Most places, you kind of work on a thing. And that thing ideally is running for a couple of years, right? [mhm] Like it’s not. So agencies have this very high metabolism. And so it’s a pretty good place to come in as a leader because you are going to get dropped into a project, follow the routines and processes that you knew from your previous existence, learn about the new culture and then go onto the next one. And by that point, you’re kind of, you’re in the clear.
RZ Well you’re making a big assumption though. You’re making the assumption that the agency is small enough that you’ll just go on a project. Cause we’re, we’re almost reaching a point where if a leader comes in, they may not necessarily. I mean, they may be a relationship person on a project, but I’m talking about someone senior enough that it doesn’t really help you a whole lot. If you’re just going to deploy them on one or two projects.
PF Right. That…is…look, that’s hard. That’s just hard.
RZ We’ve not done it yet. It’s worth full disclosure. We’ve not done it yet at Postlight brought someone in that senior that just gets plugged into the org.
PF Since people at the company listen to this, we’re not we’re done doing it today either. There’s no…
RZ Yeah, yeah, yeah.
PF Like there’s no secret announcement at the end of the podcast.
RZ No there is no secret announcement. I think this is about growth and the challenges of growth and how bodies in the building don’t solve for growth after a certain point. I think at works until about 25 people. And then after that, it starts to melt down because each human is a way point and another communication point and another coordination point and things start to get more and more expensive and less and less efficient. Not because of anybody doing anything wrong, just humans. And so who glues it together except leaders? Yeah.
PF As you grow your, you know, you get to a place where your margins are really good. And then as you grow, your margins are going to go down, but you’re going to have more scale, you know, and there’s, there’ll be less obvious points of risk to the business. And just things like that. Like it’s just dropping a leader in is hard. I’ve talked to, I know a lot of agency leaders. I’ve talked to a lot of agency leaders. I think it’s hard for us as co-founders because we think we have something special and magical and we’re very protective of it. It’s very hard for us to believe that somebody could drop in and just kind of like apply a set of principles and run a chunk of an organization like Postlight. So I don’t know. What are you thinking? What are you wrestling with here? What are we trying to find? What are we trying to solve?
RZ Well I think we’re going to eventually have to do it right. I mean, I think, I think if you’re growing slowly enough that you could just nurture the people, but what happens? We don’t control the winds that hit Postlight, right? Like post-flight, it can have, you know, it could be going at 40 miles an hour, an hour. And then all of a sudden, you know, the winds on our backs and next thing you know, we’re, we’re seeing a, you know, opportunity head ahead, such that we can’t wait. Like yeah, I see. I, there are people at Postlight without a doubt that are leadership tracks, but we may not be able to wait for them just because of Postlight’s moments of acceleration.
PF Well, it’s very hard to explain is that you’re always planning. You’re really not planning for the best case scenario. That’s a source of risk unto itself. Let me give you a true best case scenario, right? Like the fantasy best case scenario is somebody comes in and says, I need 500 people. You have to build the [inaudible] like we can’t service that. Right. So it’s like, there’s a, there’s a certain, [no that’s not us] that’s not us. And then the worst case scenario is all the clients go away and then you have new money and that’s really bad too. And so you’re kind of always caught in the middle between the two of those things. And then the things that actually happen make absolutely no sense. Like, you know, you and I are sitting here talking about growth and the moment of the greatest contraction in the economy in our life. But that’s the business we have today. And it could be possible that everything is looking up and like, you know, a big client goes away a year from now. Like you don’t have that control. So it happens in, you need to, so what, what is really going on here? So what are the triggers? So there’s interest in our business. We need to grow the business. We need to make sure we can staff the projects that are coming in, but you can’t just keep divvying things up and throwing people at projects because that requires coordination at a certain scale. And you and I, and the leadership team that we have, don’t have the resources to get all that done.
RZ No, we don’t!
PF We do today. We do today, but we probably, we may not six months from now. That’s how we’re thinking.
RZ That’s right. And that’s always how we’re thinking. Right? Like we’re always thinking about that time ahead, right?
PF Yeah. But I don’t think people know that. I don’t, I think people hear us talk and they think we’re talking about that. When we talk about Postlight, we’re talking about six months from now. Almost always. [yes!] We are not, like, when we talk about the business today, that’s marketing. When we talk about the business as like, what are we doing? That’s planning. And that is always about six months out from today. Cause that’s the, that’s the next interval where we have actual control over our destiny.
RZ Yeah. I, I think, I think I grapple with two things. One is I worry about how the different people come together when a leader is drop parachuted into an org, right? So is it fitting? Like, is the person blending in nicely? And I think here are the things I think about if I’m recruiting that person, which again, we’re not, [Paul chuckles] but I would look at the kind of personality it is. Is this person going to come in like a sledgehammer or are they going to realize, and it, and these are great people. Like the people that realize it’s going to take three months to build trust amongst the people that report to them and are fine with the friction initially and anxiety initially, are great. Right. They just understand that I have work to do here for this to be successful. And that’s, you know, it’s funny when you’re interviewing there’s the resume and then there’s your experience and tell me about yourself, but then there’s also your posture, and your attitude and your tone. Those are the things that are going to be in the room with those team members. Right?
PF Well, look, I mean, I like to reduce a lot of things in my life. I’m a, I’m a simple person and I need simple things that I can repeat over and over again. Right. So one of the things I like to say is I don’t have a job. We have a company. And we also, we haven’t talked about this much, but we have a meeting every week where we review projects and we call it qore, Q O R E: quality, opportunity, risk, and efficiency, right? We actually sort of like, it’s a way for us to assess and understand how projects are going so that we can move the firm forward and make sure that we’re kind of keeping quality up. And you know what I think we do a really good job on is quality and growth. And I think what’s hard as you’re building and scaling and especially in the middle of a pandemic is trust like those relationships of trust. And I think you’re identifying it, which is just like leadership has craft around trust. [mhm] They don’t assume. And this has been the big lesson of the last four years. For me. It was like, you can’t really assume anything in relationships professionally. And you just have to assume, you have to just come in kind of Tabula rasa and be like, okay, who are we together? And that’s actually been, that was challenging for me as a public, somewhat public figure is I, you know, just kind of had an identity out there. And I thought that that would transfer professionally. It doesn’t.
RZ It’s very different.
PF Because people are reading. People are reading an article by me. That’s a lot different than me deciding their salary, right? Like that’s not, that’s not the same brand.
RZ Yup. Well, it’s not a brand, it’s a relationship. I think, I think that’s a key distinction.
PF So, let’s talk about that. Right. Which is just ways that, and this is something everybody can do better. I like how, when you are a manager, you’re going to have the skills you’re going to be good at growth. You’re going to be able to point to revenue, when you are a high level, you’re going to, you’re going to talk about how you manage your team. How do you build that trust?
RZ You know, it’s, it’s tricky. It’s tricky because, here’s how. I think if the person that works for you, views you as a conduit to their own success, [mmm] then they view you very differently than as someone that is taking oxygen away from them. Right? [right] That you are an enabler for them, that you are there to support them. But it’s a very double-edged sword because that support and enablement can create a customer service dynamic, which can actually be detrimental to everyone involved. Because if it becomes your responsibility that they find a path to success, that’s no good either. You actually have to be able to say two things. One is: I will empower you and clear the way for you. If you help me. And the other is: you can disappoint me. You can actually fall short for me. And I will be disappointed. Look as, as I self critique and sell it kind of self-analyze I see where I fall short and I excel in this kind of dynamic, but that’s very hard to pull off. Right? Imagine you’re like supportive and you’re there for the person. And then you’re like, you know what? Your work’s not up to snuff. What’s going on? That is very confusing for someone, right. That is very confusing. It’s like, “wait a minute. You’re my advocate. You’re the person who is clear in the way. You’re my path to success. What are you doing?!”
PF Well…you know the framework, here’s the framework. This is what’s tricky. And this is hard. This is another part of growth. You know, when we started Postlight, one of the things I was proud of is I, you know, I literally used to say this, I’d be like, look, the firm is only going to ask for about 10% of your loyalty. Like the rest of it will be you as a craftsperson, but we’re not going to ask you to go out there and, and, you know, live the Postlight way [sure] and have Postlight tattooed on your chest. Right. And I still, as a, as an ethos and I think as, as a sort of like, I think that’s true. Like I don’t, I don’t think we actually, we don’t ask people to live and breathe Postlight, but what I, as time has gone on, you need more and more of that framing because you need the firm to have a set of values and you need it to stand for something. And you needed to have a, a sense of quality and a sense that people are not just, you know, letting you the manager down or that the manager is advocating for you. But that the firm has values. And the firm has a reason for that. It applies to what is good and what isn’t and that the manager is the person who speaks for that in both regards and that they are empowered to speak for the firm. And…
RZ That’s it! That’s been very, it’s been one of the hardest things for us.
RZ And the phrase to use is I need you to come to my side of the table, right. And that’s a biiiig walk. It’s a looong table man, to walk around and come sit on. The other side is a big step for people to confusing step for people. [it’s horrible!] We’re not terrible pledge allegiance to Panasonic.
PF IBM used to have this in the States too. And you literally, you know this, but there are the corporate songs and the anthems. And you go and do your exercises in the morning [yeah] that that of course has mostly faded out with the job security [thankfully] for your life. Well, no, it was, I mean, you had to go do the song in the morning, but you had a job for your life. [yeah, yeah] So that was nice. That was, that was, that was cool. Look, I mean, this is the hardest part, right? This is this. And I mean, as I’ve been researching, growing small businesses and, and sort of listening as people talk about that, this is the moment. The moment of scaling is the one where people, instead of internalizing in thinking about, you know, your leaders in what they want, you, you start to think about what the firm is and what its values and mission are. And I mean, look, we have values. We have a mission statement. We have a charter, we have a focus on craft. We talk about, you know, quality. And we like know our QORE meetings. It’s all there. I think as we grow there becomes, and I used to be very cynical about this stuff. One of the weird things about growth, Richard, Oh my God, is that all the things that I used to make fun of, I start to see the value. And I’ll give you an example, going to the woods and doing the offsite where you like fall each other’s arms…
RZ Oh you’re into it?! Now you want to do it? [Paul laughs]
PF I’m not into it. It’s terrible. I don’t think it will ever happen. But I increasingly, I see the point, right? [yeah!] Cause you have to build, you have to create an environment where people, people organically won’t build those relationships unless you make a space where they can build them. And that’s hard in a pandemic and it’s hard in a small, busy business. But as you get bigger, you actually have to say, I will put you in a room so that you can learn to trust each other. And that’s not my wiring. I am just… [Paul laughs]
RZ No it’s alien! Right? I mean it look…
PF Why would you do that?! It’s terrible! Why would you do that? What if they don’t like each other? Oh my God!
RZ But at the same time, I think there’s, there’s a couple of benefits to it. One, you don’t have to go to the woods, but I think changing your environment and leaving the grind because there’s that steam that’s coming up in the factory and nobody can, we can barely see each other at this point.
PF Well and the phone, the phone keeps ringing. Like that’s a big part of it.
RZ Phone keeps ringing. So leave. Like first off, just get out of the routine, get out of the grind, get out of the near term stuff and step back. And you know, we call it an “offsite.” We’ve had offsites in the past. I don’t think we’ve driven them very well and to no one’s fault. It’s just, we’re still young and kind of figuring it out.
PF [Paul chuckles] If any of our senior leadership team is listening right now, they’re literally looking at the ground inside. They’re just going “Yeah…” I’ve been, I’ve been reading more of these books. I’ve been reading books about, you know, like submarine commanders and stuff to kind of understand what’s what’s going on there. They’re incredibly unhelpful.
RZ [Rich laughs] I think that too. I mean, Blinkist, you know what Blinkist is? [oh yeah, yeah, yeah] It’s like CliffsNotes for, for business books more or less. And it just has these summaries and I can’t even finish some of the summaries, dude. They’re so bad. Some of the summaries, I can’t make it through the summary of your book. There’s just very little chance that we’re gonna make it through your book. So…
PF It’s usually one idea.
RZ It’s an essay. Yeah.
PF It’s like one it’s one idea. And the idea would be like, “don’t create followers, create leader followers, and you must start by being a leader following” it’s like, Oh, okay. And then you’ve got 200 pages ahead of you. [Rich laughs]
RZ Of stories. Alright. Let, let, let’s not end this cynically though. Let’s give real advice here.
PF No, no, no, no. Look, I mean, this is, this is all the real stuff, right? I mean, what people are hearing while they’re hearing us talk is: Postlight’s growing. And we are dealing with our growth and we are looking six months out. We are, we’re doing well today. We’ve done well in a pandemic. And we’re looking at more growth, which was really, frankly not what we expected. We expected that the macro economic situation would smack us in the face, just like it did everybody else. And so we’re thinking that far out, I think you and I let’s be really clear. You’re the main operator of the business. And I don’t think we’ve ever hit, before now, the limits of your knowledge and ability to just figure out like what the next step is, you know, what do we need to do in the next couple of months and just kind of keep this thing on rails. And that doesn’t mean that like we’re at sea, it just means that for the first time, you and I are really sitting in the room and going, we need help. We need to grow. We need to be thoughtful. Maybe that may be the way that we’re doing it won’t work anymore because we have this opportunity in front of us. We want to take advantage of it. And yet we may need to bend just like we often ask the firm to bend. [mhm] I think that’s really healthy. [yeah] I think that like, it’s what you have to do. It’s very strange to talk about it on a podcast, right? Like I think that…
RZ Yeah, I, here’s the thing I’ve been trying to do and maybe I’m doing better on some days than others. And I want to close with this cause we should shit on a lot of things today, but I want us to at least give them people something constructive. I think there are two things that you need to do to be able to grow. One is to give up control and two it’s to be actually satisfied with it being 80% to your satisfaction. Not 90, not 95. If you want to feel good about, really good, about yourself and you meditate a lot. You can go with 70%, but it needs to be 70 to 80% okay. And you need to let it go. That I think once you do that, you can get to a better place. Now look, I’m a hot blooded Mediterranean from Lebanon who fled a civil war. Um…
PF Yeah. Give yourself a rating on… [Paul laughs]
RZ I’m, you know… [I know] It is. It’s probably my single biggest struggle. I mean, I’ll be frank. It is my biggest struggle, I think mainly because not because I want everything to be great, but because I’m, and this is, this is not about me. I just, I wish we could just leave this piece of advice out there in the world so that flowers can grow. But let’s talk about me for a second, Paul, thanks for turning this into my own corporate therapy session.
PF Let’s do it. I’m your corporate coach.
RZ My issue isn’t that I think everything has to be absolutely great. It’s actually not driven by quality. It’s driven by paranoia and because it’s driven by paranoia. I, when I see that 20% gap, I see absolute mayhem and chaos and I can’t stomach it. And that’s my problem. It’s a flaw. It’s a flaw because of probably my upbringing and my background and kind of the instability I saw in the world. And, and, but here we are, but it is what it is. But to others out there that are well adjusted who went to summer camp, the advice I would give you is 80% is just fine. [Paul & Rich laugh]
PF Look, I mean, let me be, let me be the CEO for a minute. You’re the President of the company. What I see and what’s complicated. What is genuinely complicated is that, that thing you just described that flaw, that anxiety is the engine of our growth and it got us where we are. [mhm] And so now there are many other engines, many people participated, and this is really, this is not an attempt to make this about you. Like it is, we are a collective of human beings who worked hard and at the same time, everybody knows it. Like it just like you are, you’re a beast. And so this is a puzzle, right? And I have the same thing, which is I drive a lot of growth and a lot of connectivity around the firm, into the firm. And there are points in our growth where we are realizing that we don’t have the next step exactly outlined, ready to go. Other people need to step up in there. And we’re, we’re working on that. Like that is a complicated process in the firms. [yes]
And you know, look like, should we really be talking about this so that our clients can hear it? Nah, probably not. But what the hell? We’ve been pretty transparent before. We’re getting through it.
RZ I think, I think it’s one of the things, one of the strengths of Postlight is we kind of have that peer dynamic with the people that talk to us. And we talk because we hear a lot about our client’s challenges, not just about where’s the thing, we hear a lot about what people struggle with.
PF They don’t have it all. They don’t have it all figured out.
RZ Nobody does! Nobody does. We’re doing, we’re doing better than most. Postlight is a phenomenal company, but you’re always, you’re always scrutinizing. And as a leader, you can’t help it. Right. A good leader is always beaten beating himself up or herself up.
PF It’s six months! It’s six months. Well, I mean, that’s, I think probably some people would would say, that’s not true, but yeah. I mean, what I’ve learned is that a certain point you are just going to have to let yourself get to sleep, right? Like, yeah. Like I go to bed and I think “Postlight, Postlight, Postlight, Postlight, Postlight” and what I’m really where I’m at now is that, and this, this relates back to exactly what you just said. Right. Which is that it’s not about individual relationships. It’s about, what’s going to help the firm grow. [yup] What’s going to be good for the firm. Where do I need to step back? Where do I need to step up? You know, for me, it’s, it’s like, how are we doing on growth? How’s our quality? And how has the level of trust inside and outside of the firm? And I, you know, just every day, rate yourself every day, give yourself a report card and then it gets less scary. Then, then the failure doesn’t feel like failure. And you go, okay, well, you know, I got some steps to take here. I’m going to move it forward. I think as a human being, you never say different than you. I never stop waiting for someone to give me a report card. And then, um, then I’ll really know what I’m supposed to be doing and that you never get a report card. It never happens. And if you do, it’s either all F’s or all A’s right. Like there’s no right. Nobody gives you a B plus. Right?
PF Alright. Rich. So building trust, letting go, letting that 80% be real, like letting somebody, if somebody can do the job 80%, let go, and we’re gonna, we’ll keep reporting on our, on our progress. As we learn to release. [Music ramps up]
RZ I think these are general challenges that a lot of people deal with. It doesn’t have to be an agency, but I think it’s just growth and the challenges of growth and finding and letting go and finding leadership that can, can help. We are Postlight, Paul. We have a new brand and it’s hot. And we talk about all our new case studies and people should…
PF It’s an enormous sense of relief. Our new brand.
RZ Yeah. Well, I think it catches, it catches the world up as to where we actually are today as a company.
PF That’s the thing. I sell the firm, I sell the firm, you know, our sales team. We sit there and we talk about how we’re going to help you solve things. And the company in my head that I talk about now looks like the company on our website [yup] and very soon on our pitch deck. [Paul & Rich chuckle] Yeaaahh! I’m so ready, man!
RZ We’re a digital strategy, design and engineering firm, ready to help. We think through problems and we help you deliver big platforms, big experiences, big products in the digital space.
RZ Please reach out. We’d love to talk. Have a great week.
PF Byyye! [Music ramps up, plays alone for 2 seconds, ends]