Six Staffing Blunders

Blair interviews David about six employee archetypes which can end up being big hiring mistakes for creative firms.


BLAIR ENNS: All right. David, we have a naming challenge with this one because you've sent me two different names for this episode.

DAVID C. BAKER: You're in charge to come up with the right name. I can't do everything on this podcast.

BLAIR: I think Marcus will make the ultimate decision but first you said, let's talk about big staffing blunders, and my first reaction is can we frame this a little bit more positively?

DAVID: Probably but where's the fun in that?

BLAIR: It's the big thing I'm working on in my own personal development is let's kick the outrage down, let's state everything as positive as possible, and this might put a stress on our relationship. I don't know if you can keep up.

DAVID: How's this going in your personal life so far?

BLAIR: In my mind it's going great.

DAVID: Yes, right.

BLAIR: First you said, let's talk about big staffing blunders and I think that's a perfectly fine title. Then you sent me an updated one saying, the six archetype employee challenges.

DAVID: That sounds more official, doesn't it?

BLAIR: It sounds more Youngian that's for sure. We'll leave it to Marcus to put a label on this thing but we're going to talk about employee challenges that can also be thought of as blunders. I think they're really listed as blunders here.

DAVID: Yes. If they're listening in the conference room right now, this might be a good time to ask everybody to go back to work and then you'll just listen to this on your own and then summarize it for them. That might be better.

BLAIR: If you're listening as a group in your firm right now, I think everybody should do this exercise of write on a piece of paper the name of the person in that room who was a hiring mistake.

DAVID: Then put them in a fish bowl and then pick one of them out.

BLAIR: Yes. All right. Let's get to staffing blunder. I like that term. Let's get the staffing blunder number one. You call it the big hire. What do you mean by the big hire?

DAVID: This is you're tired of not playing in the big leagues and you look at the LinkedIn profiles of all your people and where they've worked and you're thinking back to the last big presentation. We're in the middle of a conversation where people work came up, and you kind of hem-hawed, and under your breath you talked about where you came from and you decide, "All right, it's time. We need somebody with serious agency experience or used to work at one of those big firms, those big digital firms. We are going to hire somebody. We're finally going to go out on a limb." You explore what this is going to cost and you think, "Oh, I don't know. Maybe we should wait a little bit longer."

Then you talk yourself into it finally but your expectations are so high from this person not just because you've dreamed of having this person for a long time who's going to carry the weight for you, carry the water but you also, you're thinking about how much this is going to cost, right? What happens is you hire this person and they never work out. The first person never works out. Never hire your friend as this first big person because the first person is always going to pave the way for the second person. Does that makes sense?

BLAIR: To clarify, you're sitting there running your crappy little firm.

DAVID: I didn't say that.

BLAIR: At least, you're thinking of your firm in that way, you've struggled long, you've got to a certain level of success. There are these moments in front of clients and more likely prospective clients where you're thinking, "Oh, we're just missing some of that big agency pedigree." You look covetously at this person, maybe they've reached out to you, maybe you've run an ad. You're looking at them and you think, "Oh, they come from the big New York agency. They're going to bring all the magic fairy dust that we're missing." That's the hire you're talking about, right?

DAVID: Yes. It's a strategy or account person, or maybe it's new business, maybe it's creative director. Yes.

BLAIR: The first time you brace yourself, you think, "Oh, this is a ton of money. I'm going to pay this person more than I've ever paid anybody else on my team but it's going to be worth it because they're going to bring the cachet, they're going to bring the insight of how it's done at the real firms." As I said, the magic fairy dust and then they show up and what happens?

DAVID: Not much. [laughs] Because one of the things is that they've worked at a bigger firm, they always come from bigger firms. These people don't do work. They help other people do work. When it comes to actually doing work like putting a deck together or making a presentation in person at a client or shaping a big project that you're doing or directing a shoot, or something, they're just looking around and wondering where the staff is that does this. They're not used to the entrepreneurial environment. They're also not used to how fast things happen and how efficient they must be.

We don't have a million and a half dollars for this 30-second spot. We have a $40,000 budget for this video shoot and we're shooting it on a cannon not on a red. They don't quite get that stuff. It takes a while. Everybody is really excited at the beginning but in the end, this person moves on and they go back to the big firm, a different big firm like the one that they left. Then what happens with the second big hire because it's a good idea to make those big hires, it's just that the very first one seldom works out.

You just need to find somebody you don't like. Hire them first and then just let the clock run out, move on from them and then your expectations are set. I'm joking here but often the big hire doesn't quite work because they don't know how to work in a small entrepreneurial environment and your expectations are too high.

BLAIR: I agree with that. I've seen that repeatedly. I refer to these people, as that first big agency hire, as a wrecking ball. It's a wrecking ball coming at your agency. In my domain of the new business development, it's a wrecking ball on the work that the principal has done on positioning because they come from a firm that isn't properly positioned. They don't understand the value of positioning when it comes to a little firm, and then in the new business front, they bring the big New York ad agency or digital firm wherever they come from ways which is a really expensive way of doing new business and they put together these big elaborate decks sounding like everybody else--

They don't come from a world where anybody is actually meaningfully differentiated in their positioning. They bring this expensive elaborate smoke and mirrors. I've seen a lot of good positioning work and good new business development progress in terms of policies and procedures undone from that first big hire. It's this wrecking ball experience but your point is you have to do it. There is value in hiring these people. The first one is usually a mistake but you learn a lot and you call them the sacrificial lamb. Then you say the reason the second one tends to work out is why? Expectations?

DAVID: Expectations are different. That's half of it. The other half of it is that you know how to find a person better than you did the first time. You're looking more carefully for somebody who is more hands-on. By the way, everything that you just inserted a second ago, that just rang so true to me. I hadn't thought about that but I've seen that happen so many times as well. The other thing too is that those folks are often dismissive of your less exciting bread and butter clients. That's not good for the staff. It just isn't.

One half of your expectations are better, the other half is that you find somebody who is a better fit culturally, who's a little bit more hands-on who maybe-- I know this is weird to say but you want to hire somebody who's been beat up a little bit, somebody who's failed pretty miserably and risen from that and isn't so hotty about all the big agency experience they've had. I've interviewed 20-some thousand people over the years and I've interviewed a lot of people where they had three or four jobs all at very serious big-name firms.

Frankly, I've never seen much correlation between the degree to which they should be respected and the firms that they worked at. I think we have to be real careful about the assumptions we're making because of where somebody worked.

BLAIR: I agree with that completely and I think of when you've hired that first big person, they come in and they start telling you the way things should be done and you as the principal who've been in the trenches building this firm for a while, you think, "Oh, I'm not sure that that translates to my independent business but you're the big agency person, I'll defer to you." Often, those moments of deference end up being mistakes. By the time you do it the second time, you have a better sense of what skills and points of view and practices they're bringing to your independent firm that does translate and which doesn't.

You really just need to stop that person and say, "That's not going to work here. We're going to continue to do it this way."

DAVID: Yes, yes. We could stop right now because this topic-- Let's not, let's keep going.

BLAIR: Yes. Okay. We got six on the list. We spent 10 minutes on the first one. We've got 20 minutes now.

DAVID: It's so good. I think people listening are going to really identify with this.

BLAIR: Okay. Staffing blunder, number one is the big hire. The first one doesn't usually work out but you learn a lot from that and the second one is more likely to work out. The second staffing blunder is the power player. What do you mean by the power player?

DAVID: Power player is somebody that's been with you for a very long time. They started when you were small. They have done five or six jobs and I think of them as the infield utility player like on a baseball team. They're the person who can play many different roles. They don't excel at any particular role but they have played lots of different roles. If you're not sure who I'm talking about, one thing I mentioned is the key, they've been with you a long time.

The other is this, when a new employee comes to your firm, this person, male or female, will somehow find a way early in the first day to insert the fact that they have done every job at the place. They know where all the bodies are buried, and if you need any help understanding anything, I'm here and glad to help you. It's that kind of person. On the surface, you're probably thinking, " Well, what's the problem with that, having that person there?" right, but it's the power player and it's one of those things that you have to move beyond in order to really make progress.

BLAIR: I think anybody who has grown beyond a certain handful of people can immediately identify that person and identify with what you're speaking about. Early on, they're super valuable. They do everything As the firm grows and roles become more specialized, they resist the specializing of their roles because they really like doing lots of different things, and as more people are brought on board, they feel a little bit threatened because they're no longer that super valuable person who does everything and they play these little games to essentially assert their authority over others coming on. Is that correct?

DAVID: Yes, it is and you can sympathize with what they're struggling with because they have been so critical. Think back to the early days when there were four people at the firm and they were--

BLAIR: Invaluable, absolutely invaluable in the early days.

DAVID: Yes. They were one force of the whole staff and they were willing to pitch in and do everything but they were hired because they were so good or good enough at all these different things. Meanwhile, like you said, we've hired this specialist and this person doesn't really have those skills but what happened psychologically is they begin to lose confidence as they are vying for the attention of the principle and now they're fighting with 15 or 20 people for that person's attention, and their significance is no longer as critical because there are other people with very defined SMEs, subject matter expertise contributions.

They have to find-- Humans have to find a way to retain their significance in some way, and if they can't find it by how their role is defined, they will usually default to some sort of relationship. I have a relationship with you, and as that relationship dies a little bit because of how the business has grown and gotten bigger and bigger, they can react really well or not. In almost every case, they do not react well, and what happens after they can't retain that significance to a relationship, that second stage, they go to the third stage and that's to become the complaint sync.

In a computer, you have what it's called a heat sync. That's what gathers heat and then dissipates it safely. In a firm, they become the complaint sync and it's phrased in a good way. They say, "Listen, John is really busy and sometimes he doesn't react really well to some of your questions. If you want, I'd be happy to know when to talk to him and how to phrase it and I'll go to him with your issue." They become a complaint sync and take all these stuff. This is not unwittingly, they know what they're doing here. They're gathering some power and it always ends badly.

It's always somebody who's been with you a long time. They were the utility infielder. They don't know exactly how to run the firm later. They're often overpaid because they've been with you a long time and usually you have to ease these people out of the nest because it just isn't a good fit anymore.

BLAIR: As you point out, it often doesn't end well. You call them the power player and the mistake is keeping them around too long. There are sometimes sentimental reasons why you keep them around because they were so valuable early on but it is part of the growth curve of the firm is you have to get through that stage and move past that person and move on.

DAVID: Right, yes. All right, six staffing blunders. We've talked about the big hire and the power player. Number three on your list is the shiny seller. Who is the shiny seller and why do I feel like I'm going to be sucked into this conversation?

BLAIR: [laughs] Yes. I couldn't leave this off the list but I was hoping you could talk about this one because I've seen it so much but I figured, well, you're going to have a lot more to say about this than I would. It's the person who comes usually with more transactional sales experience who's going to save the day.

DAVID: Yes. The new business position or sales position is such a high turnover position. Similar to a lot of other roles, we tend to swing back and forth when we're hiring somebody with a certain capability or skill set. It comes at the expense of not having another skill set so in the next hire, we kind of overcompensate. In the agency world, a lot of the new business people have lower competitive drive and that can be a good thing because the opposite of competitive drive is patience so we suffer through somebody who is like not selling fast enough and to compensate, we hire what you're calling here, the shiny seller.

We're hiring somebody who comes out of a transactional sales world where they have to close, close, close all the time, so they're really high drive, rejection proof. What you're saying here and I make the same observation is those high drive people who come out of a transactional sales environment, they don't settle well in a more consultative sale where a little bit of patience is a virtue. They end up pushing too hard. They get frustrated because they have a high need to close. They start bringing kills back to the nest that are inappropriate, that are too small, et cetera, et cetera.

BLAIR: Right. Sometimes, you don't realize this until you're six months into it and then you think, "Oh goodness, I don't want to waste the money and the time we've spent. I just need to give it a little bit more time." This is more your bailiwick than mine but from my perspective, I wish people would follow their instincts about the effectiveness of their salespeople because they often hang on too long for the wrong reasons, and this is a person that if you're really careful, you probably would never hire them in the first place because they haven't sold professional services at a minimum but ideally they've sold the kind of stuff that you're doing to the same kinds of clients as well.


BLAIR: We're talking about six big staffing blunders. We've covered the big hire, the power player, and the shiny seller. The next on our list is the battlefield promotion. You're talking about promoting the best doer to the new managers, that essentially the Peter principle?

DAVID: It is and it's not as if every one of those promotions is bad. I'm reading the Richard Sharpe series again, that's why I'm using this metaphor. It's the Bernard Cromwell 10 Volume set on Richard Sharpe. The officers are the ones who always get shot first because they're up on the horses and then we need somebody to lead the troops after this officer is gone. Let's grab somebody on the field. That's what happened. You see this happen for creative directors and for lead developers and so on.

The person leaves who's heading this department up or maybe you're just growing into the need for somebody here, and because you're trying to respect your existing staff, you say, "Let's not go outside. Let's promote one of the people that we have," which is a very legitimate reason and it's an option for you and many firms do that well. They say, "Okay," after they've made that first decision, "who should we make, who should we promote?" You feel like you have no choice but to promote the best doer. The best doer is not necessarily the best manager. The best doer is the best doer.

Many of them transition to managers very effectively but many of them do not. You are giving them a promotion which obviously includes money and a title and recognition but the way it's received by them, first, initially, it's great, but after that, it's more of a sentence than it is a promotion because what they love is doing and now they're suddenly managing the people that were their peers just yesterday.

You just have to be really careful about this because managing is not special. It's not more important. It is just a different function and some people are really good at it and some people aren't. Some want to do it and some people don't want to do it. Some people who want to do it aren't good at it. Some people who don't want to do it are really good at it. You kind of want reluctant managers but battlefield promotions must be done really carefully.

BLAIR: Are there domains within an agency where you see this to be a more common problem like the creative department or the account management department or on the technology side?

DAVID: I would say, technology and creative would be the two biggest problem areas. It doesn't seem to be as big an issue with strategy or account service or project management. Yes, it's in those areas, creative and technical. Those two just fall-- The battlefield is littered with bad promotions there where somebody was just promoted for the wrong reasons and then, once you've done it, everybody agrees, the people being managed, the person you promoted and you, you all agree it was kind of a mistake but you don't know how to reverse it. Sometimes what happens is you just decide to not do anything with the salary bump they got, just let them keep that and then just invent a new title that doesn't involve much management and let them go back.

BLAIR: Off to the side with the dotted line on the org chart. Is that what you mean?

DAVID: Right, and then five years later we're wondering how we got to this org chart that looks like an overhead view of Boston.

BLAIR: It's funny you mentioned the creative department and developers or the technology department and I see it in the account services because that's more my domain, new business and account services. It's just so clear to me that the people who make the best senior account people, that's a different skill set than being a junior account person. The best junior account people, it's not in anybody's best interest to necessarily promote them to senior account management roles. The way I think of it is in the junior roles, the server responder type person is most effective.

They're really good at checking off a list, really good at responding to client requests, good at customer service, et cetera. I think the higher you move up on the account services side the more it's a requirement to actually challenge the client to be comfortable pushing back on the client and not serving and responding but leading and challenging, et cetera. I just don't know those other areas as well as I do account management. It's not really an issue on new business side because new business departments are so small. There's very little hierarchy there, but I do see it an account management and I assume based on what you're saying it's probably the same everywhere. It's more obvious to me in the domains where I spend most of my time.

DAVID: It was actually the impetus for one of the books I wrote called Managing (Right) because I was speaking at this conference in Atlanta. There were several hundred creative directors in there. For some reason I ended early and we were deep in this Q&A section. I was asking people about their experience at being promoted and how much they struggled in those early days. Then I asked all of them to send me an email, anybody that would send me an email about what their early struggles were and whether or not they should have been promoted to creative director from creative.

The emails I got, they were so moving to me because they surfaced this really significant struggles these folks received in this promotion because they just weren't prepared for it. They had had no training. They didn't even have really good role models. Some of them did, some didn't, and they were just left to fend for themselves and all of a sudden they were moving from a place where they were recognized for their great contributions and now they're swimming around in uncertainty not knowing exactly what it means to be a manager. That really changed my thinking about how all this works.

BLAIR: That reminds me, I spent yesterday cleaning and reorganizing my office and I have three extra copies of your book Managing (Right) for the First Time. That is such a good book for the first-time manager. If anybody listening this would like a copy of David's book signed by me ,tweet me.

DAVID: This is your new career, signing my book, because nobody wants books that I sign. They want books that you sign.

BLAIR: I have your latest book, The Business of Expertise. I have three copies right here signed by me that I'm sending out to people. I write on the cover, underneath it says, "David C. Baker," and I say, "Signed by Blair Enns." Tweet me @blairenns. The first three people who do, I’ll send you a signed copy, not by the author but by somebody better of David's earlier book, Managing (Right) for the First Time. It's a great book. We've got to move on. You have no chance to rebut that. The fifth hiring blunder is the account controller and you've got here-- What do you mean by putting yourself in a self-hostage situation and getting life squeezed out of you? That's what you wrote here.

DAVID: Most account people are really good. I think it's the most difficult, not the most important, I think it's the most difficult role at any firm of any stripe under the marketing field. Most of them are very gracious and really good at what they do, but every once in a while you have somebody who is power hungry and who sidles up to the client and just sucks all the power out of the room and then uses it to gain control, to gain raises for himself, maybe titles, maybe stepping in and saving things regularly.

Anyway, it happens so slowly you don't even notice, but then one day you wake up and you realize, "Oh my goodness, this person has been doing such a "good job" with this client. I don't even have a relationship with that client anymore. What am I going to do if this person leaves?" All of a sudden they're holding you hostage. Now, it's rare because most account people are not that way at all. They're not evil. They're very respectful.

They're very loyal, but every once in a while you get one. I don't see this as often as I used to see it because we're not in a world that's as account driven as it used to be, but you still see it every once in a while and it can get really ugly. Where it gets especially ugly is if you combine that with a client concentration problem. You have an account power person who is controlling an account that could sink your firm if they leave. That's what I mean by that.

BLAIR: The advocacy in the relationship with the clients should be from organization to organization. The people, multiple people on the client side should be advocates of the firm, and what happens in this account controller situation is usually a very valuable account person, is hoarding the advocacy. They're making sure, for reasons of their own protection, that the relationship is with them and not with the agency. It's my point of view that such a person or all of your people especially those people in the front lines, they should see it as their responsibility to make sure that that advocacy gets transferred to the firm. When you see somebody hoarding it, that warning bells should go off.

DAVID: When that's happening, it's almost always accompanied by a broken business/personal boundaries. This person becomes a personal friend of the client and spends a lot of time with them outside of the work relationship as well. We should talk more about that.

BLAIR: All right, that's the account controller, and the last hiring blunder of the six we're going to talk about today here is the vacuum filler. You have this great line here, "Good humans naturally fill vacuums." Is that a point of physics?

DAVID: Yes, people are picturing opening up the vacuum and then pouring dust in it. Well, they fill leadership vacuum. You just see this everywhere. That groups of humans don't exist without leadership, whether it's formal or informal. You're the principal and if you abdicate your leadership role, what I call directing, then somebody is going to fill it. It could be an honorable human that's going to fill that role or it could be one who's not honorable. Meanwhile, you will almost always celebrate that somebody is filling that role because it's a role that you don't want.

You don't enjoy managing people, you don't like being tied down to the office, you don't like the hassles that come every once in a while, and so you're grateful that this person is stepping in. If they're an evil person-- Even if they're an evil person, things do get better than they were when you were running things because this person pays more attention to it and so on, but over time and it usually takes about 18 months or so, 12 to 18 months, you then wake up and you discover like earlier that you don't have a relationship with your own firm.

The key relationships of the employees are mediated through this one person who has stepped into your leadership role. This is somebody who is that number two, they are always a number two and they're always not an equity partner. They start taking steps, leadership steps that assume that they are a leadership partner and everything is fine at the beginning and then everything goes down. You'll reach a tipping point where you'll either lose the firm or you'll get it back but it will come at a pretty significant cost because at that tipping point you will have already lost a few of your employees.

BLAIR: I can imagine some of you listening to this, you've been through it, maybe you're in the middle of it now or maybe you're just listening to David speak, you're suddenly becoming aware of the situation for the first time. As you point out in the beginning you're grateful because they're stepping into the void and they're filling a role that's not being done by you, the principal. You're grateful for that in the short term but in the long term or even the medium term it becomes obvious that this is a mistake.

DAVID: Yes, it is and you've got to be a little bit smarter than them. You've got to wake up without them knowing that you're waking up. Sometimes you need an outside adviser, most of the time you don't, and you'll just have to make some very tough decisions and rip that Band-Aid off and get your firm back. There is no clean way to do that.

BLAIR: You'll be up at night reading Sun Tzu.

DAVID: Yes, right.

BLAIR: All right, we've been talking about six staffing blunders or six archetype employee challenges, Marcus will determine which. The first one was the big hire, bringing in that first big agency person. The second one is the power player, keeping that first utility infielder for too long. Then the shiny seller, hiring a transactional person. Then the battlefield promotion, promoting the best doer to the new manager. Then the account controller, putting yourself in a self-hostage situation and letting an account person control the relationship with the account. Then the vacuum filler, somebody steps in and fills the void of leadership that you've left and all of a sudden the firm is effectively no longer under your control. I feel like--

DAVID: We need to give people hope again. [laughs]

BLAIR: Well, no. We could probably do a podcast on each of these. This is such a valuable conversation. I've never thought about these. Some of these are new to me and some of them it's just nice to see them all in the same place. This is a good reference guide for probably just the most common hiring mistakes and I would suspect the most people listening, some of these haven't occurred to them before. I think this is a really good-- I'm trying to find another way to say it. I think we did a great job, David.


DAVID: You've been listening to Dexter Guff too much. No, I enjoy the conversation. I learned a bunch too. It's useful just to kind of just plant this episode in people's heads and they'll recognize some of it now and then I suspect that some of them will come back and listen to this later and say, "Oh, now I know what they were talking about."

BLAIR: We've just set the catalyst for a flurry of dismissals.

DAVID: Yes, I'm moving next week and not publishing my address.

BLAIR: On behalf of my co-host, I apologize for all of the carnage that is about to be wrought on independent creative firms around the world. With that, we'll talk to you next time, David.

DAVID: All right. Bye, Blair.

David Baker