Your Firm Should Be A Team—Not A Family

Marketing services firm owners are usually proud when their employees describe the company’s culture as a family. They shouldn’t be proud, though. They should be worried. Companies should not strive to become families, they should strive to become teams. There are some big differences between the two.

Why your company shouldn’t be a family

  • Families are dysfunctional. Not mine, of course [just in case my amazing father is still reading, and definitely not because he’s paying my salary]. But how many truly high-functioning families are you aware of? There are always a few weird uncles dragging the average down.
  • Families are impossible to get out of. There is a lot of safety in families, because they’re something you’re born into and can never be born out of. However, this is the wrong kind of safety to cultivate. “Unconditional love” means you will put up with quite a bit of nonsense, bad work, and even poor effort. Don’t misunderstand me – you want your employees to feel safe in that they always know where they stand and they always know they can tell you the truth. But you don’t want them feeling safe enough to be content with subpar performance.
  • The black sheep gets all the attention. In a family, you often see a disproportionate amount of time and energy spent on getting the black sheep “back on track.” Remember the parable of the prodigal son? The good son gets jealous because his father spends so much energy forgiving the prodigal. And sure, in a religious context, fine. But that’s no way to run a good business. That time spent worrying about your low performers would be better spent coaching up your high performers.
  • Families instill too much loyalty. Some amount of loyalty is commendable. But families can often take this to the extreme. You don’t want employees so loyal to you that they’re unwilling to push back when you start making boneheaded decisions. Not that you’d ever do that. You also don’t want employees so loyal to you that they have no drive to improve, thereby stagnating in their roles.

Why your company should be a team

  • Teams are built around a common goal. First off, teams are built, not born. Presumably, you have a strong company mission in place, something you’re all working towards. And you’re also definitely trying to make a pile of money. Teams have goals – namely, to win. Families do not.
  • Different seasons require different players. Growing a team from one person to 100+ people is hard. One of the reasons is because at the beginning of your company’s journey, you need scrappy Jacks- and Jills-of-all-trades. You need people that can jump in and do just about anything, even if they can’t do it all well. As you grow, you need more specialists. You are constantly hiring people who are better than you at particular skills. There will be times when you grow to a size that some of your more tenured employees are no longer needed to take the company to the next level. This is a hard truth, but it’s also a natural part of building a team. Unless you’re a horrible person, it can be incredibly difficult to recognize and respond to employees that helped to build you into what you are today, but don’t have a clear future at the company.
  • Teams are constantly tinkering with their rosters. Not a season goes by for a professional sports team without significant roster changes. And like a team, you shouldn’t be afraid to be constantly adjusting your roster to give your company a better chance at a championship. To be clear: championships don't mean awards. No one cares about your awards. Championships, in this rather extended metaphor, means profits and fulfilling your mission as a company. My business partners and I have come to realize that we’ve never felt regret for firing someone too early. That means that if anything, we have been firing people too late.
  • The way you play is a stylistic choice. I like to think of this as the difference between European soccer and Latin American soccer. Both get results, but they’re very different in style. Companies are run like this too. There are definitely wrong ways to run a company, but there is also more than one right way to run one. In large part, these stylistic differences are determined by the founders, whether they are aware of it or not. You need to attract team members that “play the game” like you do. That could mean you want adaptable people that thrive under pressure, thoughtful people that plan things out well in advance, or, more than likely, some mix of the two. Over time, people will both “opt in” and “opt out” of your culture. But you can save yourself a lot of heartache by understanding your company’s style upfront so you can filter for the right people during the interview process.
  • Players choose you just as much as you choose them. You can join a team. You can’t join a family. I include this last bullet mostly to keep you honest. The best people are not going to be content working with bad teammates and bad coaches. A good team starts at the top, with the ownership. That’s you. Hire good coaches, treat them well, always work to improve, and the rest will trickle down.

At this point, I’m beating this “team” analogy into the ground. But I’m not quite done yet. Remember that every year is another chance for a championship. Sometimes you won’t be able to settle for a “good” coach when what you need is a “great” coach. I liken this to the 8-8 coach in the NFL. Growing up in Nashville, that’s what we had in Jeff Fisher. He got us to the playoffs with some regularity, but we could never quite turn the corner. Finally, we had to move on. This doesn’t mean you need greatness at every single position immediately (though that sure would be nice), but you do need greatness at your coach position. A great coach can make the best of a good player. At a smaller agency, you’re probably still the coach. As your firm grows, your 2nd level of management becomes the coach.

If you’re still struggling with where to start becoming less like a family and more like a team, take a hard look at your coaches (the people that have the most people reporting up to them). Are they as ready to compete for a championship as you are?

Here are a few more articles to explore on managing your team:

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