A Personal Note from Me to You

A Personal Note from Me to You

I cope by writing. If I go too long between "fixes" I start to shake a little and get grumpy. So far, reaching back to my first post in the mid-nineties, everything I've written had a business tone to it. I only shared enough about myself to ensure you knew it wasn't generated by some AI algorithm, but I'm feeling the need to write you more as a person and not a business advisor.

A little about me. I just turned 60. Been married for 39 years to Julie, after we met in high school. I grew up with a tribe of Mayan Indians where my parents did medical and literacy work. I began formal school in the US when I was 16, but otherwise grew up with no electricity or running water or roads or stores, to speak of.

The early days of our marriage--with two young children--were wonderful times, in spite of being poor. I stood in line to get free government handouts of cheese, honey, and powdered milk. I was in grad school full-time and mowed lawns on the side. When starting our own agency, I worked a second-shift job trimming J.C. Penney catalogs as they came off the print line at an R. R. Donnelley plant.

We ran that firm for 6 years. It was smallish (16 people), but I fell in love with the industry, with marketing, with writing, and with strategy. Soon after I pivoted to my current role of helping other principals make smart business decisions, unlike some of the ones that I made and which I saw other principals making.

For the last 26 years I've been trying to serve you with a constant stream of good advice. Not that it has been in every case, but I've tried. Working for you has been a fantastic adventure. I've done well from a business standpoint and it's been a lucractive practice. It's enabled me to combine several of my strengths: observation, truth-telling, insight, courage, and articulation. I have no employees because I want to do the work myself rather than supervise other people who do the work. I love the work more than I ever have.

A central theme of my work is this: the quality of the business decisions you make has a far greater bearing on the success of your firm than the quality of your work. The work you are doing is far better than most of your clients would recognize, much less appreciate, but the firms who thrive over time know how to run their businesses, and that is my singular goal: to help you run your business better.

When you look around you right now, there's not a single person running a firm who is wondering if their work is good enough to come through this and thrive on the other side. No, what they are wondering comes down to this:

  • Were the decisions they made in the past the right ones in order to give them a better chance of weathering this storm. These are usually around positioning, lead generation, staffing, debt levels, etc.
  • Are the decisions they are making right now the right ones.

Those are the questions I'm trying to help you think through.

As I do that, my own business has completely shut down. I don't need any of you to hire me, so that's not some sort of plea. I've done the math and we won't need to sell the puppy for two or three years.

Instead I've turned to doing free webinars for larger crowds where I can be an efficient advice-giver. Last week I did 8 of them, and I'm scheduled to do 9 over the next week--17 in call. the audiences have ranged from 20 to 852, so far, and I've been able to hit all the major world regions except Africa.

If I'm being honest, I want to kick some of your asses for living so glibly and assuming that nothing bad can happen to your firm while you lived on the ragged edge. Others invoke a deeper sorrow as I think of the lives that will be impacted. The economic impact could rival the impact of the virus.

Folks, we are a lagging indicator. If you think it's bad now, just wait for 2-4 months to see how all this will catch up to us. As an industry we'll emerge stronger than before, but not until there's a winnowing. The weakest kids are going to get thrown off the merry-go-round.

I hate that I have to do a webinar on Tuesday about how to dismiss staff humanely. I don't even want to imagine the thousands of lives this will impact, but maybe I can help you do it better rather than bungle an important time in your firm's journey. So far nearly 800 principals have signed up, looking for some answers. That alone is a testament to how much this occupies your thinking.

I don't have all the answers. After doing a webinar for 350 people Friday in the UK, I alternated between real pride at shining some light on how to lead through this, and then being close to tears with the same weariness I felt after the earthquake in Guatemala in '76. After that event killed 23,000 people, my job was driving around a 4WD truck to take supplies to stranded villages off the beaten path. It felt worthwhile...and exhausting.

As a leader, you may be feeling the same thing, so let me speak to you directly:

  • You have to take care of yourself or you can't take care of other people.
  • Don't think about the survival of your firm as much as doing the right thing. Quite a few of you are going to not make it (15-30%), and that's really okay. You're amazingly talented and capable and you'll be fine. Maybe even better. What's not okay is to be stupid.
  • Being smart means that you make decisions before there is complete clarity. If you wait for the clarity, you've waited too long.
  • Your team will remember the kind of person you were long after they remember what sort of decisions you made. That's an argument for transparency, empathy, and courage.

I'm sending this to a smaller group of just 9,800 people who subscribe to these weekly emails. I want you to know that I'm pulling for you and that I'm proud of how you lead and how resourceful you are.

The vast majority of us will be a little banged up but just fine; some of us will be quite a bit poorer; but all of us will know what we're made of. Let's not forget that.

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