Leading in a Chaotic World

This is adapted from a keynote I gave in Madrid to 100+ agency leaders recently. Since it seemed to resonate for a lot of folks, I wanted to flesh it out into a longer article. I hope that you, too, find that it meets you where you are at this moment.

A decision-making framework will help you make better decisions during chaotic times like these. That’s important because leaders can be pulled painfully in many different directions…at the very time when you have to acknowledge those various interests, but then disappoint (at least some of) them. Your role is to make the decisions that the group probably would not make for itself, and that’s an incredibly difficult and lonely job.

What do I mean by “chaotic” world? I’m talking about navigating an environment that includes:

  • The role AI will play in your positioning and service offering design and staffing, etc.
  • A complex digital world of marketing where attribution was supposed to be clearer, but has instead made your true impact for clients even more difficult to prove with the many ways consumers are influenced.
  • More competitors than ever, but from different categories: in-house, consulting, near- and far-shore, freelancers, and “fractional” everything.
  • Procurement, which did a jail break and is now parading the streets with no fear of retribution.
  • Work from home and how to train and manage and promote and pay them fairly.
  • Salary and title inflation.
  • And now an interconnected world where political or economic or social upheaval quickly spreads like a wildfire.

It’s not like we still aren’t bathed in glorious financial performance, by historical standards, but it’s also not the kind of life you may have envisioned for yourself when you decided to hang that shingle out and wait for people to call you.

In a world where it would seem to make sense to hold off on any big decisions until the fog clears, your indecision is eating away at the foundation of your firm. Every night while you are asleep, a million termites are eating the 2x12” joists under your firm’s foundation, and the longer you wait to set a clearer course, the more dangerous it becomes.

Here’s a maxim that I believe with all my heart: there is greater danger in paralysis and delay than in making the wrong decisions. Just make the decisions, as best as you can, and course correct if you need to. Aim for “good enough” decisions while you stand by to correct anything you might have missed.

Here's an eight-part framework that might help settle your mind a little and clear the fog of competing interests. Because that’s at the heart of the challenge: balancing those competing interests, and that’s why you need a framework.

1—Know Yourself

Although each of us is different, we each have known tendences, and you have to correct for them. Do you overreact or under react? Do you listen to others too much or too little? Do you embrace conflict or are you a peacemaker?

This is where your deepest fears come into play. If now someone competently (enough) does something that you used to hate doing, you may loath taking that over again. Or maybe the memory of how you got burned by that one client hovers over your decisions.

Over time, you’ve constructed an immune system to certain ideas, and you look for confirmation of that pre-judgement everywhere around you, ignoring the counter factual arguments. You keep taking cues from some persuasive person…who has never had much success himself, maybe, but whose worldview you admire. Or you hired that friend or family member, and now you’re stuck.

Know yourself, step outside your own body and grab your own head from behind and force yourself to stare at the obvious.

2—Who Is Serving Who Here?

You did not sign up for this. You signed up for some sort of craft or coding or whatever. You had an entrepreneurial seizure, as Michael Gerber said, and because you were good at what you did, clients came.

But you became a bottleneck and so you hired people. And those people needed managing, which is not something you would have signed up for originally.

And in spite of starting this so that you’d have more freedom, more money, more choice about who you worked with and for, and more free time for life, you have less of all those things.

A big whoppin’ congrats for how this turned out, eh?

But here you are, so embrace and thrive at leadership… or slim way down as a firm. You do not have an option, here. Every time you add a person to the team, your risk goes up and you move the slider further away from the “doing” toward the “leading” end of that spectrum.

So in this second element of the framework, take into account what you want. It’s your firm and not theirs. This firm does not exist to serve your team, but rather your team exists to meet your goals, and if your goals are not being met, grow some and make some changes.

3—Embrace Your Proper Role

This third element is an expansion of the previous one, but it gets specific with how you will have the time to lead. (Having the will to lead is what you decide in element no. 2; this is about how to free up the time to lead if you decide to embrace it.)

There are two things you must give up in order to make space for the four (or five) things that the firm requires of you:

  1. Specific knowledge of projects. Say that you bump into a client at a coffee shop one morning and they say: “Hey, by the way, what’s the status of xyz project?” If that happens and you have a team of a half dozen or more, you should never be able to answer that. If you can answer it, you’re far too close to the work and you won’t have time to lead.
  2. Designated lead for any client. Say I called up each of your clients and asked them this question: “Hey, who is your primary contact at the agency? Who do you call when you need something?” If the answer is “you” then you haven’t evolved your firm sufficiently to have key people in key roles who can manage client relationships, including closing the sale, managing conflict, growing the account, etc.

Those two things, in that order, must be handled or you’ll not have time to do these next things, which only owners/leaders can do. These are also listed in descending order of importance:

  1. Overseeing the financial performance of your firm. Knowing what’s important, where you come out on that scale, how to fix it, and so on.
  2. Ensuring a new business pipeline. Fix your lead flow, and you’ll figure everything else out. Neglect your lead flow, and nothing else matters.
  3. Managing/leading up to six people (or so) who report directly to you. That’s typically finance, new business, client management, strategy/research, and then something else, depending on what kind of firm you are. This rule applies across all industries and every size firm.
  4. Innovating the future, and boy is this an integral time to be doing that. The confluence of all these things that I listed at the start are a perfect storm. Don’t sit back and assume you’re fine. Assume the world is changing at a little bit faster pace than normal and you’ll be left behind if you don’t figure this out.
  5. [Strategy for clients. This one is optional, and very few of you are going to have time to do this. I would almost leave it off the list.]

There you have it. Is that the kind of role you dreamed of before you started your firm? Probably not, but that’s what’s required if you want to run the place, now, and if you don’t clear your plate of the first two things, which are very “low value” in the scheme of things, you’ll not have the time to get to the things where the firm really needs you. And if you have partners, you can split these things up to share the load.

4—Accept that Decisions are Sloppy

Decisions, in this environment, are not like on/off switches, where there are two very clear choices. Instead, think of your decisions as sliders, where you are trying to move the slider between two extremes:

  • What’s best for the individual vs. what’s best for the team (not the family).
  • Short-term survival vs. long-term thriving.
  • Holding firm to scope vs. keeping the client.
  • Overreacting to AI vs. being left behind.
  • Staying within salary constraints vs. hiring for the future.
  • Killing yourself now so you can thrive later vs. just putting your foot down.

Here’s the thing, too: the sliders are different for each decision, and the ideal place for each slider moves as your circumstances change. This is where it’s easiest to get paralyzed as the fog keeps you from seeing things as clearly as you’d like. It’s not quite as sloppy as a goalkeeper diving to one side or the other in a penalty kick shootout, but it’s not far off that example, either. Make a choice, and if it was wrong, shake it off and keep making more choices.

If you’re waiting to decide until there’s sufficient clarity, you’ll wait too long, and the damage of not being decisive will be more painful than occasionally making the wrong choice. You only get better at decisions by making them.

5—Recognize Early Onset Indifference

One factor that feeds indecision is lack of engagement. You just let things unfold, hoping that decisions will be made for you. It’s good to remember that this feeling happens to all of us, off and on in our careers, and it’s normal. That’s not a sign of failure.

But think of this as the potentially penultimate event in your business: that means “next to last,” and what follows…if you don’t address it…is, indeed, business failure. So when that nail pops up, deal with it by pulling out your biggest hammer and crushing it back into the floor where it popped up. Not by living in denial, but by addressing it with gusto.

Why is this hitting me? What are the unsustainable things about the firm right now? Why have I switched from an abundance to a scarcity mentality? What changed, and how do I fix it? It might even be something in your personal life and have nothing to do with the business directly, but it still needs to be fixed.

Left unaddressed, especially with a framework like this, and your relationship with your business is going to get fragile and angry.

6—Quit Blaming Outside Factors

I obviously think there are powerful outside forces that are throwing your firm around a bit, but the proper approach to that is to not go to the coffee shop every morning with your old friends and lament the state of the world. The world is actually a wonderful place with loads of opportunity and good people.

Two things can be true at the same time:

  • External circumstances are making your life harder.
  • It’s still your job to adapt to them.

The enemy is within, as Demosthenes so eloquently told us 2,400 years ago: "it is impossible to quell the foes without, until you have punished those within your gates.” So when you focus on external enemies, as if that’s what’s responsible for the state of your firm, you are powerlessly whining and ignoring your proper role.

Your shitty profit (which you call bad cashflow), your low personal comp (which you call investing in the company), and your crazy workload (otherwise known as being a control freak), must be owned.

The enemy within every political party is within the gates, and that’s the only thing that can really defeat you. The same is true for your HOA, your group of friends, and your firm. Keep blaming things on the opposing forces and you’ll not rise to the occasion like you could.

7—Remind Yourself Why You’re Doing This

You are doing this for two reasons, and two reasons alone. A third (loving what you do) will automatically flow from nailing the first two, but if either one of the first two things goes missing, there’s no possibility of enjoying what you do.

The first reason you’re doing this is money, and if that doesn’t make sense, you might want to give yourself a dope slap. Money ebbs and flows, of course, and you have to expect that, but the longer you do this, the more likely it is that money will clarify your thinking and keep you engaged. If you want to be Mother Teresa, open an orphanage rather than coddling your team. If you want to be Gandhi, open your own non-profit instead of letting your current for-profit enterprise slide into a non-profit. If you want to take a side in all the culture wars, start an advocacy firm and leave the rest of us to be entrepreneurs who love what we do.

The second reason you’re doing this is to impact your clients. There’s deep satisfaction in moving the needle on behalf of the people who pay you the same money that means a lot to them. A worthy exchange of value is one of the deepest confirmations there is in commerce, where the buyer and the seller each love what’s happening in the exchange. This is soul-changing and it builds thin layer upon thin layer of satisfaction that then resists the piercing of those painful moments when things aren’t going as planned.

But even beyond the impact you can have on clients, who might soon forget you over the years, imagine the impact you’re having on those who work for you, by modeling courage and generosity and empathy…and your decision making.

Yes, money and impact. And enjoyment will follow. But if this has been elusive for you, go back to the list of things you wanted to be when you grew up and pick one of those, instead. Life is too short to be trapped in an entrepreneurial adventure that was designed to set you free. You’re likely a very competent individual, and what you’re doing now is just one of many options to find that success.

8—Embrace Your Unique Role

So to top this off with the eighth element of the framework, realize that there is nobody else at your firm whose role it is to:

  • Conduct the most courageous conversations.
  • Make the decisions that the team will not or even cannot make for itself.
  • Inspire the achievement that only a leader like you can build from a team of people pulling together to solve common enemies, within or without.
  • And letting the people that you don’t “please” with your decisions down slowly so that they don’t scuttle the ship.

But…I’m Reluctant!

So you hear all this and it’s kind of tough to get all rah-rah about leading in this moment. That is something that I definitely understand. You take an honest look at yourself and can’t label it anything but “being a reluctant leader.”

Is that a bad thing? No, it’s actually a great thing. Reluctant leaders are the best. It means that they aren’t sure about things, that they are open to feedback, that they are honest about the challenges.

The leaders I’m terrified of are the ones who aren’t reluctant. They are power hungry, blind to the mess they leave behind, and so sure of themselves that they are incapable of nuance.

Ambition does not usually mix well with leadership, either, because good leadership is about making other people do well, and sometimes that is a zero-sum game: there’s one spotlight, and if it’s shining on someone else, you’re going to bask in the secondary light. And I’d argue that the secondary light (a lot of people who understand that you are responsible, in part, for their success) is a more flattering light.

Here at Punctuation, we are on your team. If we can help you reset the firm for a new day, just reply and we’ll get on the phone to chat about it.

“The test of a business man is not whether he can make money in one or two boom years, or can make money through the luck of getting into the field first, but whether in a highly competitive field, without having any initial advantage over his competitors, he can outdistance them in a perfect honourable way and keep the respect of himself and of his community.”

—(apparently) Harvey Firestone

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