When I started my agency, I was so hungry for it. I had been working at a manufacturing company; a subpar employee who constantly challenged his boss and left work everyday unfulfilled. I had dreams of founding a large company; of starting something special to call my own. In 2009 at 25 years old, that’s exactly what I did.
Today, I’m CEO and Founder of IMPACT, an inbound marketing agency in Connecticut with 23 employees. Our company is recognized as one of the top inbound marketing agencies in the world. Our team continues to grow, and the past two quarters saw the highest revenue and profit in company history. My story sounds simple: guy is unhappy at work, guy follows his dream to start his own company, guy finds success and happiness. End of story, right?
Actually, it’s just the beginning. In the past seven years, I’ve had to learn what they don’t tell you at business school. Successes, failures, lessons learned – for better or worse, I’m grateful for all of it. Because now I can tell you a thing or two about learning to put values before growth – how much it hurts when you get it wrong, and how good it feels for the entire team when you finally get it right. I’m sharing the lessons I’ve learned in hopes that it helps you along your journey.
The beginning of my story is a familiar one for many converts to values-driven leadership. I founded my company in 2009, and business grew quickly. My approach to growth skewed more traditional: we were hiring people based on their skills and resume, and I led my team with the top line in mind. On the surface, it seemed we were on fire. It all seemed so easy. We were hiring and growing like crazy, and we hired for certain talents – not for core values or alignment with our purpose. I didn’t know it then, but we were bringing in B players who would choose to coast instead of excel; slowing down sales and leaving clients unhappy. But at the time, I just saw rapid growth and smiling faces. That wouldn’t last long.
I won’t bury the lede – you can imagine how this approach affected the company. Over time, I realized that hiring for skill instead of fit was a mistake. Productivity went down, and morale suffered. Though I had an office full of talented individuals, they were all going in different directions, aligned to their own agendas instead of with the company as a whole. I watched from the sidelines as negativity spread throughout the office, spearheaded by a leader in the company who preached his dissatisfaction with the business and with my own leadership. Time and time again, the two of us butted heads, and time and time again, I chose to ignore the red flags and keep the course.
It was my fault. I let it go on too long.
In Fall 2013, we reached a point where I knew I had to make some tough decisions. And I made the moves that every burgeoning values-driven leader should: I made the difficult decision to let go of five employees that simply didn’t fit, rounded up my remaining team members, and together we pressed the reset button. I seized the opportunity to realign and redirect the company, and I articulated a new vision. I’ll be honest: things got a little messy at this point. I regret blindsiding those terminated employees, I wish I had made bolder leadership moves sooner – but nonetheless, I was taking control again. And this time, I wanted the company to have a vision. Immediately, culture started coming up.
With a stronger, more united team in place, IMPACT forged forward with our core values identified: passion, helpfulness, and dependability. Things were looking up for the company. It seemed the team was more aligned and more energized, clients were better served and understood, and profitability followed suit. Was this the happily ever after that every values-driven leader dreams of?
Turns out, we still weren’t quite there – and I found out the hard way. In 2015, we hit rock bottom. Our clients were unhappy, morale was low, and sales slowed to a halt. It had gotten so bad that we were losing around $27,000 a month. Adding insult to injury, an act of betrayal from key leaders in the company quickly unveiled problems within middle management. Though we had a new set of values in place, not everyone was clear on exactly what they meant in practice. The company’s profits reflected that disconnect. With a knife in my back and employee satisfaction once again all over the spectrum, I can admit it, things were looking bad.
What’s a values-driven leader to do?
I decided to look in the mirror, take responsibility, and fix things. I chose not to lose confidence in the people who still stood with me. As bad as things had become, I still believed we could be a great company, together. And together, we turned another moment of crisis into a defining moment.
Here’s how we did it. We went back to the drawing board. Starting with me and all the way down, everyone contributed their own idea of the company vision. And this time, we went beyond signing off on front-facing values, and worked to give legs to the company’s vision and values.
I put down my vision, and everyone contributed theirs – it was all hands on deck. The difference this time was stark – rather than the vision coming from me, it came in concert with the team. And rather than celebrate the creation of the values, most of the time was spent on how to live them.
In order to get the company back on track, I needed to move more quickly on those that didn’t fit. We said goodbye to six employees in one day – but this time, I did it right. We took our time with the process, helping those employees look for new jobs, sharpen their resumes, and providing references. They all knew it was coming, and many of them even hugged and thanked us on their way out.
What I learned came from a commitment to putting my people first and trusting the team to show me the way. I listened to what my employees were telling me and we built a values-driven business based off of their vision, their principles,their hopes and dreams.
Today, IMPACT has systems in place to recognize employees for their commitment to core values on a daily basis. We host annual awards celebrating employees for their values-driven work. Everyone is evaluated quarterly to assure alignment with the company culture, and if there are discrepancies, we have a 30-day program to help team members focus on core values. Our employee and client retention is the best it’s ever been. Our last two quarters have had the highest revenue and profit to date, employee and client NPS has significantly improved, and our team operates as a collective unit. We’re firing on all cylinders.
In order to build a great company, you need a dependable, unified team. Do employees feel ownership over the company’s values and vision? Do values drive all of the work or are they simply for show? Most importantly, are you willing to do the important work of involving values in the daily life of the company? As leaders, we must challenge ourselves to dig deeper than simply identifying our business’s core values – we have to learn to live them.
In the second post of this series, I share the 10 major lessons I’ve learned in hopes that it helps you along your journey to greatness – and the steps to get there are simpler than you might think.
I want to wrap this post up with one important message that helped me get through and actually enjoy the last year, and that’s to enjoy the ride. Entrepreneurship is a game, and it’s a privilege that we even get to play. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, sometimes you have to restart the whole thing. But when you’re in this game, there are no bad days. Leading a company is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and our story is living proof of the importance of putting values – and gratitude – first.
When you change your perspective, everything else will seem to just fall into place.
Until next time,