How to Drive Your Employees Bat Sh*t Crazy
The issue of how principals manage their employees continues to pop up for David year after year, and Blair is worried that he might have this problem in his own firm.
BLAIR ENNS: David, today we are going to talk about how... Well you tell me, what are we going to talk about?
DAVID C. BAKER: My plan is to talk about something that keeps popping up. Every once in a while I just sit back and think, "Oh my goodness I've been seeing this for years, how many years have you been seeing it David?" Then I go back and think about it and go look through my notes and it actually, it popped up because I have this survey tool I had a professional help me design years ago and I've used it more than 20,000 times with employees of creative firms and so it's easy to compare note you know, like what happens year over year and whether any of the answers change and so on. Most of them don't all that much and this one issue keeps popping up all the time about how principles manager their employees or how they drive them batshit crazy.
BLAIR: There we go, that's what I wanted you to say. We're going to talk about how to drive your employees batshit crazy.
DAVID: We should just save our producers some time. How to drive employees bat beep crazy. How's that?
BLAIR: Yeah. Okay. Well I think... I don't know what the, do we leave the swear words in? I should really listen to our podcast.
DAVID: We do leave them in but it's really very, very mild. I mean we have some people that would just laugh at this swearing. This is very juvenile.
BLAIR: Yeah. Gary Vaynerchuk wouldn't give us the time of day.
DAVID: Yeah. That's right.
BLAIR: Okay so a little while ago we talked about things that happen while you're away or something like that. It was really, we kind of started to touch on this topic of the principles relationship with his or her employees and when we were planning this out and you put forth this title I immediately became kind of self conscious because I'm keenly aware of the fact that I might be driving my employees batshit crazy so I kind of bristled a little bit and thought, "Uh oh. This is going to be about me isn't it?" So is this about me?
DAVID: This is actually an intervention. Alright rescue team are you ready to join the call?
BLAIR: Okay so you started off by saying this is reoccurring theme, it's one of the many patterns that you've seen over the years. Is there a basic problem that underlines everything here?
DAVID: Yeah. There is and so it's not... So everybody has, every principle would have a very distinct style about how they manage people and what degree of feedback they give them and so on and that changes over time. It has to because as a smaller firm that principle is typically a player and then they become a player coach and then they become just a coach and there are little boundaries that they cross along the way but assuming that the firm has I guess leveled off and it's not changing all that much, the issue comes up and it looks like this and that's that the principles degree of involvement with employees is not predictable. So in other words at some times they're just letting employees do their own thing and most of the employees, not all, but most of the employees appreciate that and then at other times they're inserting themselves in the process typically very late so that it's very disruptive at that point and it's not that one of those styles is better than the other, it's the fact that you mix those styles. It's the unpredictable nature of that involvement that's driving employees batshit crazy. Does that make sense?
BLAIR: Yeah. Now is this specific to the creative professions or is it more pronounced in the creative professions? Is there something about a creative entrepreneur that they're more liable to do this.
DAVID: Yeah. I believe there is. Partly because much of what they're doing as a company stems from something that they love doing personally. So nobody goes to school to run a creative firm, in fact in some areas of the creative services industries there just isn't any training at all like account service for instance or project management. There might be a little bit for strategy, there might be some for skill players like design or writing or something like that. So they enter this stream through the craft door frequently and truth be told if they could figure out a way to make a lot of money without clients and without employees they would jump at that opportunity but that hasn't presented itself so they create a firm around this.
In the beginning they are the best at what the firm does and the primary determiner about who they can hire is like "Oh my God I only have this much money so I'm going to get the best I can for this kind of money." So they end up hiring these people who are functionally blank slates and those blank slates are written on by the principle who teaches each employee about how they want it to be done. So the firm never rises beyond that principles ability. They're very, very involved not just in doing their share of the work but in helping employees do the work as they want it done. So because they've entered the field this way they are very tempted to stay involved in doing the work even as the firm grows and even after the point when they should have probably made this transition to hiring people with the right skills no matter how much it costs, they haven't made that transition effectively. But they're still inserting themselves into the process often at the last minute because they can, right?
So if you think about large ad agencies for instance, it's very rare to find a creative director who comes from a design background. Almost every one of them comes from a copy background and that's partly because copy has a stronger tie to strategy but it's mainly because the best creative directors can't actually do the work of the people that they're managing which removes this temptation for them to step in and do the work. So they have to develop skills that allow them to get the best out of their people. So there is something unique about this creative field that allows people to even step in and worse yet at the end of the process and insert themselves and drive employees crazy in the process.
BLAIR: I never thought about the reason why most creative directors in an ad agency come from the copy side and not the arts side and that's really interesting. Yeah so they're kind of precluded from being able to get in there and mess with things the way an art director would.
DAVID: Right. I saw an interesting movement recently and I'm very much in favor of it and that's when you're trying to take somebody from a design or a copy background and turn them into a creative director. One of the first assignments you give them is to go to a place like 99designs or one of those places that creatives universally hate and have them work with these independent contractors so to speak, to develop great work. They've never met them, they don't even know their names but it's basically to improve, build that muscle of how to get great work out of other people rather than stepping in and doing the work yourself.
BLAIR: What an interesting idea. Yeah. So the implication of all of this is, like it's the kind of the unevenness of the principle involvement creates this unpredictability which is... That's what's difficult for the employees is it?
DAVID: Right. Exactly. It comes down to teaching style, right? If you know that your teacher, whoever it is whether it's in a professional setting or a parent to child relationship, if you know that person is going to step in and basically tell you a better way to do it at any given point it's really hard to feel engaged at giving your best if at any given point you know that the principles going to come in, sometimes metaphorically but other times really doing this and just clearing the table and starting over. It just leaves employees with this sense of it's the opposite of being empowered. They feel this dis empowerment if that's even a word because they're not really sure if they're going to be allowed to contribute their best. Somebody's always going to step in and rescue them and save them either... Now and sometimes they're really not being rescued because the work they're doing is amazing but the principle feels like well it's just not my style even though it's certainly a good enough style, maybe even better than their work.
Have you ever noticed principles telling you this? I've been meaning to ask you this question but they're reminiscing about the old days and at the same time that they're whining about their current employee crop and they talk about how efficient things used to be when they were smaller and they used to do the work and how nowadays it takes somebody three times as long and that's their excuse for issuing really poor estimates to clients because they say, "Well listen I just can't get over how long it takes people to do things. When I was doing things it was so efficient." When actually it's probably more of a memory issue than anything but that still sticks in their heads and they feel like goodness gracious these people, like they don't think of employees as necessarily making the firms work better. It's more just these are assistants to help me do more work.
BLAIR: So the role of principle and the mind of the principle really hasn't or maybe in reality really hasn't evolved right? The idea...
DAVID: In some cases it hasn't. Right, exactly.
BLAIR: Yeah. So you've talked about this before. One of the earliest things that you said that I saw in writing that you'd written that really struck me as profound is the statement that "Growth isn't good."
BLAIR: Period. Then it's not bad either. It's essentially neutral but you have to decide why do you want to grow and one of the outcomes of that is you need to accept the fact that if you do grow, if your firm does grow your role has to change. I'm probably putting words in your mouth after the first couple of points but...
DAVID: No, I agree with all that. Yeah, absolutely.
BLAIR: Yeah so you can't grow without accepting the fact that as you grow your role is going to change and so I think one of the problems that you're hitting on here is that there's the growth without... When you have the growth without change the principle isn't working hard to remove herself to allow people the freedom to do things, to not jump in unpredictably all the time. That's when the problems start.
DAVID: Right and that's also the argument for growth at a manageable pace and so if we stop and look at that statement for a minute and say, "Well what in the world does manageable mean?" Well in the context of growth it means at a rate that allows you to act differently at a pace that's manageable for you. I actually put a number to that, it's about 30% year over year in terms of body count. It doesn't matter revenue, that doesn't really impact management. It's more about the number of people you manage because humans don't seem to be capable of learning faster than that. So as they add bodies to the mix their own management style has to change drastically and as humans they're incapable of adjusting their management style faster than that.
So you run a training organization now that has a lot of people, more people than you've ever had working with you as a team so I imagine thinking about growth and what that means, now you haven't, you know, you've got really good people that are working for you. You've known... It's not like you just did this out of college. You knew exactly the kinds of people you wanted working for you but have you gone through some of this struggle internally? Like lying in bed at night thinking, "Oh my goodness. My management style needs to change." You've sort of lived this as opposed to just your clients living it.
BLAIR: Yeah that's why this is a form of therapy and consternation for me. I'm not sure where to start I mean there's the issue of... Like the unpredictability. We had our quarterly planning meeting yesterday, one of my key employees said, "You know, one of the things..." We talk about what's working, what's not working. "What's not working, I'd like more time with you Blair." Yeah and it's my involvement with her is very unpredictable, we don't so now we've got regularly scheduled meetings so that's one thing but the idea of my role changing, when I was talking about what's working for me I made the point that I'm now free of... I was a consultant and wondered could I give a consulting, decided the answer was yes, we pivoted to a training company, built the training team. I was the head coach in the training and coaching organization. I asked myself, "Could I give up coaching and direct client work?" Eventually I asked my team members that, they said, "Yes."
I started to let go. Now I'm the point now where I have no clients. I am just a CEO. So I've really at least this is my perspective on things, you could ask my team members but I've really embraced that. I've really looked forward to as we add people allowing that to... That being the impetus for my role to change because I'm really craving a change in my role so I can do less and focus on fewer things.
DAVID: So it's more sustainable as well, something that keeps you excited. So you're developing IP, you're speaking, writing, that sort of thing.
DAVID: But you've never really had this propensity to fly in at the last minute and change everything, that's not kind of who you are. You're not a control freak so you wouldn't struggle with that as much as say I would. Oddly enough I didn't struggle with that too much when I ran an agency but it was the thing I had to work at the most because I had very bad tendencies in that way. It wasn't just... It was always under the guys of quality control which is usually, that's usually how people mask it. It's like, "Nothing leaves this place without me seeing it."
BLAIR: Yeah, really?
DAVID: You have a lot of incompetent people or you are really a control freak.
BLAIR: Yeah it's either everybody in your firm is screwed up or perhaps it's you. The problem is you.
DAVID: As you walk out the door.
BLAIR: Are there deeper issues here for employees? How deep are the problems we are creating for our employees by flitting in and out, being unpredictable in terms of our involvement and micromanaging?
DAVID: Well one thing that comes to mind, I remember thinking about this and wondering if it was a pattern that required a little more careful attention on my part and so I started to listen carefully, a little more carefully and I think it is true. I'll just mention it and we'll see what listeners think of this. So before you go away on say a two week vacation or in the US it's more like a week, in the rest of the developed world it's more like up to a month at a time and before you go on a leave for an extended time you're often putting in extra hours wanting to put everything in writing and get organized and finish those briefs and put schedules together and everything and if I were to stop you in the middle of that at say 9:00 PM one evening at work and say, "Hey, why are you doing this?" Your question, if you thought about it and were honest with me you'd probably say, "Oh well I don't want to be bothered I've been looking forward to this trip for so long and I just really need a break and so if I do all of this stuff in advance then the likelihood of them needing to bother me is really low." Of course that makes sense and I think that's true.
Okay so you go on your holiday, you come back and you really didn't think about work all that much. The one thing you're curious about though is, and you ask employees about this, it's like "How did things go while I was gone?" Many times on that extended time when you were away you judge how well things are going by how little they bothered you, right? If you didn't get any emails, you assumed that no news was good news and sure enough they didn't bother you much. You get back, you ask them how it went and they look at each other kind of smile and say, "It went great. No problem. You should leave more often."
BLAIR: Best ever.
DAVID: Yeah, you should leave more often. Just joking, you know? Even though they're not really joking. So then you go right back to your old habits and so I think the lesson here is right at that pivot because if you are doing all of this work before you left in order to not be bothered you flipped back to your old habits because you do want to be bothered. No matter how much you complain about that there is this certain learned significance that comes to you to your psyche by being in the loop and so you give people as much, you give them just enough information so that they can leave you alone and go make some progress but you don't dare give them everything they need because then they won't be forced to keep you in the loop. Does that make sense?
BLAIR: Yeah. Makes perfect sense. Do you have some... So if somebody's listening to this and thinking, "Okay yeah I am the unpredictable entrepreneur who's kind of flitting in and out on an unpredictable basis, kind of intervening on an unpredictable basis" are there some rules or guidelines, things that I could keep in mind to kind of keep myself in check?
DAVID: Right. So a good honest conversation would be a good place to start and your employees will be very fair with you. They trust you generally. There are very few principles who are jerks. They're almost always good people who are interested in the welfare of the firm and the people there. If you have an honest conversation they'll be honest with you or you can start with the people that feel safe enough with you that they can cross some courageous boundaries so to speak. Then you might throw the problem back to them and say, "Alright. What are your suggestions?" One of the things that I've had a few principles implement that seems to work pretty well is to have a 72 hour rule. So you say that any feedback, so I'm the principle here speaking from my perspective like "It's good for me to have the opportunity to give feedback but I pledge to you that any relevant feedback, unless something changes, will come to you no sooner than 72 hours to the deadline. So you have the last three days." Say it's a big presentation at a certain stage of a project that you're doing or something so I pledge to give you all of my feedback at least three days in advance. That might be something.
You might also have some signal that when you start to interfere in some wildly inappropriate way somebody might have this signal, could be like a slice across your neck sort of signal. Something like that, that just gives them some idea that you've lost yourself a little bit. Relax. These people are very competent. Don't worry about it. I think it's just simple things and honestly I think it's not a huge issue if you just recognize that it's happening and try to work on it. In the more egregious situations sometimes you have to work with a communication coach. I'm definitely not one of those but somebody locally who can listen to your employees and listen to you and help each party see what the other one is not saying like read between the lines and communicate further because I've seen principles who want to improve this. They almost universally do improve it and it's one of those areas where I'm pretty hopeful about change and so I think it's within reach for most people.
BLAIR: Yeah so it's an issue of first of all awareness and then once you're aware of it you're kind of willingness to change and if you have those two things it's probably the prognosis is pretty good. Is that what you're saying?
DAVID: Yeah, right. Yeah and this isn't the only way to drive employees batshit crazy but it seems like the one that almost everybody toys with at one point or another in their professional management careers.
BLAIR: Yeah. I'm hesitant to start plugging things in this podcast but I do want to give a shout out to a friend of mine who's kind of in that space. Her name is Anese Cavanaugh. Her book is called Contagious Culture and she has an approach to kind of communication and leadership that's called intentional energetic presence and she does a lot of work in the creative firm space. She words with IDO all over the world and it's really, really powerful stuff that when people are looking for presentation skills training I send them to her. When there's that kind of employee issues, yeah I guess you'd characterize them as communication problems that her approach is pretty good for that. So you said this isn't the only way that principle drive employees batshit crazy. Why don't you give us one or two others? Or do you want me to volunteer mine?
DAVID: Let me collect some more and we'll turn each of those into another podcast episode, how's that?
BLAIR: Okay. I do want to just for a second blow up, well I can expand a little bit on something and it's just the feedback. When you were talking about... I forget how you phrased it. I kind of got lost because I had a flashback to I worked for a very large ad agency once and in what I would politely characterize as an abusive professional relationship and you know me, I'm not short on confidence. In fact I have way more confidence than I deserve to have and there was a moment of I worked for this person for a very small period of time but during that period of time, I mean if you had known me before you know me now and you had seen me in that relationship you would have seen somebody who was in an abusive relationship and whose confidence was completely shattered.
I remember writing a simple letter and having to take it to my boss knowing that it wouldn't be good enough and sure enough it never was. I became incapable of writing a letter and as you talk about the characteristics of the principle getting involved and essentially saying... Well instead of letting the employee feel their way through, arrive at a solution that's maybe not what they would do and maybe less than perfect and offering guidance and working to improve them, you step in in the end and do it the way you would do it because nobody else will do it that way. I think that if you keep doing that over and over again what you end up with is these employees who feel they're just stripped of confidence. They feel like no matter what they do, no matter how hard they work, they can never do it right. To this day many years later I still think back on that moment.
I just cannot believe that a person like me was ever put in that position where I felt so incapable of doing the simplest things. It's just this insidious little thing that it's just by correction, correction, constantly correcting everything so I try to remember that today and often I try to give my team members more leeway. I'm not saying I'm successful but I think about it and I attempt it. Give them more leeway. Every once in a while I step in and just like do a high level edit on something and just apologize for it but for the most part it's just I accept this isn't the way I would do it but I'm really appreciative that somebody else is doing it and I can offer some guidance on maybe what they would do differently or guidance on what's not working without offering the solution, right?
So I just think, and again I'm dragging my story into this but I think that if we're not careful as entrepreneurs, as managers and we don't take seriously the obligation to elevate ourselves and let go of the day to day and let people do things differently than we would do, the impact that we can have on people's psyches is profound. It's just tremendous.
DAVID: It really is.
BLAIR: In a negative way.
DAVID: It borders on some sort of abusive, psychological abuse of some kind and I think it's irresponsible to grow unless you're willing to make changes in your own management style. I don't think it's ethical to grow or not grow, I think it's very unethical to grow and not make changes in your management style and if you find that it's too difficult to do then I think it's in everybody's best interest to go back to a size that you're comfortable managing, right? Then you end up with these emasculated unemployables who you've ripped the rug out from underneath them and they no longer even have confidence to go find another job and it's this cycle of twirling around the drain and you wonder why... Then it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy because your concern about how incompetent these employees are turns out to some degree to be true, not because they're incompetent. Because they're acting incompetent because you're not allowing them to be competent and those folks stay there because they don't have the confidence to find some place else and that's a sad story to walk into a firm like that and to see it happening.
BLAIR: Now let's end on this note. That's really profound, like it's really hit me. You in one of recent interviews you said you the creative entrepreneur, your legacy is not likely to be the work that you do, it's likely to be what?
DAVID: Yeah the people that you impact that work with you and the impact you have on their careers and their lives. Those people will never forget you for good or for bad and I think that's an amazing opportunity and responsibility in front of you to think about your impact on the world. Of course your impact on your own family and friends is even greater but the impact you have on your employees is amazing and I think about the opportunity that these people have to learn from you, somebody who's grounded ethically, who thinks about the right issues, who wants their success that's... What an amazing gift I think.
BLAIR: Yeah. Okay. Let's end right there. This is great, thanks David.
DAVID: Thank you Blair.