Published in Nov-Dec 2018
The careers inbox in our agency’s email system is under sustained attack. Every week hundreds, if not thousands, of people send in their resumés. Strangely, the partners at our agency have entrusted me as the initial filter for this floodgate, a lone warrior against a sea of talent that can make or break our agency. I rationalise this by thinking that any company is only as good as its people and until we reach 150 employees, every new hire can be extremely detrimental to the culture of the agency because although some new hires do their jobs well, they can also be poisonous to the culture and bring down the productivity of others. Some people call them brilliant jerks. This is why hiring should not be delegated completely to the HR department, at least not in the initial stages.
So what do I do when faced with a torrent of aspirants knocking on our virtual door? I judge them on their entrepreneurial abilities. I skip past their qualifications and the cookie-cutter career objective statements and look for that golden nugget of information; what are they interested in and what have they done about it so far?
This is a polarising issue as far as hiring trends go. In the golden age of industrialisation, the economic model was based on the assembly line. A company was the sum of its parts, working in unison to create value. It moved in a sequential manner and each part was optimised for the best performance at the lowest cost. The system worked beautifully, as long as everybody did their job to the expected standards. It was stable. Growth was powered by specialisation and scalability and visionary leaders knew that they were the only ways to increase output. A part that performed better helped speed up the process and more parts and processes, running in parallel could reliably increase operations. Hiring, therefore, was based on finding experts; people who could do a job better than anyone else – and then finding more people like that.
However, there was a caveat. The model thrived on performance but sacrificed innovation at the altar of risk. Because of the sequential nature of the beast, experimentation posed the very real hazard of grinding the entire machinery to a halt. If one part or person attempted something new and failed, it would cause a cascade of failures throughout the entire process.
Agencies need to increase their tolerance for employee failure. With any new technique, the risk of meteoric success is counterbalanced by catastrophic blunders. Like a child trying out a swing for the first time, you need to let your entrepreneurial employees know that you expect great things from them but that you will stand by them if they make a mistake.
To succeed in such an organisation, you did what you were told, worked hard and reaped the benefits. Everyone coloured within the lines and was rewarded for increasing their output and decreasing the time it took them to do something... as long as you didn’t fail at the primary task altogether. Loyalty was heavily compensated, but the rewards of innovation were monopolised by the entrepreneurs themselves.
Come the services age, and the world has changed. Lower entry barriers and more flexible regulations translated into an exponential increase in businesses – and there are already people lined up to eat your lunch. In true evolutionary fashion, this means that there is greater variation in the way businesses are operated. Everybody is trying something different, everybody is hungry and everybody is willing to fail. This makes for interesting contenders to the established titans of the industry; the upstarts who will use whatever it takes to steal a piece of your pie. I know this because I am one of those upstarts. I try to position my business to out-innovate the old guard of the agency world – and even more interesting is that I am already challenged by newer upstarts. People with less experience and resources than I have; people who are hungrier, more experimental and nimbler than I am. I am both David and Goliath; the hero in my story, but the villain in someone else’s.
The only way to thrive in this dog-eat-dog advertising industry is to continuously challenge the status quo and never become the keeper of the status quo. If you can’t beat them, hire them. But while hiring entrepreneurs is straightforward, retaining them is a far more challenging affair. A company that actively chooses to have entrepreneurs in its ranks needs to be willing to make some fundamental changes to accommodate such people. They will have to throw out the rulebook because these guys do not work according to it.
Entrepreneurial agencies must also incorporate freedom. It is the essence of this class of people to try new things. Your job is to provide them with the path of least resistance. We do this by doing away with strict time and place constraints. You must be willing to ditch the nine-to-five within the office premises. Let them choose their hours and place of work. Experience has shown me that this is tricky. Some people may try to take advantage of this newfound freedom, although it is more likely that they will learn to appreciate the flexibility their always-on lifestyle demands. Eventually, they will realise the merit of coming to work on time and of leaving work behind at the office when they are home or elsewhere. The coffee shop productivity is not for everybody but they have to go through the process to come to this conclusion.
Even more important is the agency’s ability to motivate. Entrepreneurs are not in love with money but rather with the internal glow... the warm feeling that comes from creating something of their own. An entrepreneurial agency needs to align those goals with theirs. Link their appreciation and stature in the company to the success of their initiatives on business performance. Let them start a new division, let them initiate a new process, let them create more value; all on their own terms. Do not give an entrepreneurial hire explicit instructions; dispense inspiration and advice instead. And when the time comes, reward them not for their loyalty and job performance, but for the innovation they attempted.
Last, but not least, agencies need to increase their tolerance for employee failure. With any new technique, the risk of meteoric success is counterbalanced by catastrophic blunders. Like a child trying out a swing for the first time, you need to let your entrepreneurial employees know that you expect great things from them but that you will stand by them if they make a mistake. An internal tool we use to keep a check on our successes versus our failures is the concept of ‘net proud’. Some ambitious plans will fly and others will not. As long as the net result of the two makes you proud at the end of the day (or the year), in our book you are good.
Adopt these initiatives and your employees will innovate with and for you. But know that in this kind of agency, HR models come with a high rate of attrition. High-flyers can only buoy you so far, after which their rate of velocity may outpace your own. So learn to let them go. This month, our agency’s first hire left to start his own app start-up. It took him seven years to crystallise his entrepreneurial ambitions, absorb the lessons from the agency and take the plunge. Within our agency, we have people that are agency-folk in the day and content producers, fashion designers, fitness trainers, musicians and teachers at night. With bittersweet feelings, I look forward to the day when they will leave to fulfil their entrepreneurial dreams.
The scariest and most emotionally nerve-wracking aspect is that they are the people who will give me competition tomorrow. I know they have the potential to make a better agency than ours is today. But as they learn from the company, the company learns from them. I begrudgingly welcome them to the battlefield and wish them greater success than ours. May the best entrepreneur win.
Umair Kazi is Partner, Ishtehari.