Growth is exhausting and communicating clearly through growth can be even harder.
I’ve never had trouble speaking my mind, but one of the most surprising things about growing my digital agency from one employee (me) to 100 people is that “speaking my mind” isn’t as simple as it used to be. The way I communicate to the company and the way we interact with one another is evolving — because there are so many more of us than ever before.
I’m fortunate to have a fantastic support system surrounding the agency to help us nurture our leadership tenets, and I love the challenge of growing a company. Every time I see a new person in the hall who has chosen to serve our clients and build their career within our walls, I’m humbled. But it would be dishonest to say that the journey is an easy one. Some days I’m just worn out. We’re stretching new muscles every day, and sometimes that means we need to keep a bottle of Advil nearby.
Here’s what I’ve learned about communicating through growth:
Recently, I walked out of a meeting where I saw one of our new hires make an honest mistake. Following the meeting, I wanted to share some helpful words of wisdom, so I wrote this person (let’s call him Trevor) an email with the subject line, “come to my office” with nothing in the body of the email. Trevor came in; I shared my feedback in less than five minutes; and I thought I had done a good thing by sharing immediate, clear feedback. I felt good as a leader. Later that day I heard from Trevor’s supervisor, “Damian, you scared the heck out of Trevor by writing ‘come to my office’ in the subject line. He thought he was being fired.”
Looking back, I understand Trevor’s concern and my management team’s point of view. Trevor was ultimately thankful, but I could’ve engaged in feedback in a been a better way than an open-ended email (even though it was sent with the best intention). Having these types of conversations can be difficult, and they evoke a healthy level of vulnerability.
Leadership and communications expert, Brené Brown, gives this advice, “Giving feedback is incredibly vulnerable for this reason: If you’re giving good feedback, you should not be able to script what’s going to happen when you sit down with someone. You should be willing to be able to hear.”
The moment I spend more time worrying about the script or delivery of a tough conversation than its substance, I can’t help but feel I’m going the wrong direction. My tendency is to believe it detracts from the opportunity for feedback to be an open, two-way conversation, but I’m also zeroing-in on how important it is for me to be aware of how I structure the messages I want to deliver.
One of the hardest things for me is what I’ll call “compartmentalizing emotion.” My executive team has opened my eyes and helped me to see that if I’m visibly sad, frustrated, or disappointed — these emotions have the potential to impact the mood of the entire company.
Of course, we’re all human, and emotions are healthy, but it’s when they have the potential to impact performance that they need to be addressed. If someone stiffs us on a bill — I’m angry. When we lose a new business pitch I know we worked hard on — I’m disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? But I’ve come to realize that the larger organization can’t decipher the source of my emotions and that my negative energy can add unnecessary weight to the team.
When we were smaller, I felt that showing my true emotions was a sign of authenticity that my colleagues valued. As we’ve grown, I’ve developed a new perspective. I know I need to be more mindful of how I express my emotions, whether it’s through my body language or my words. It can be hard to hear this as a leader, but, if you’re receiving tough feedback from the people you’ve entrusted to help guide the company through growth, it also proves you’re doing something right.
My old football coach used to say, “It’s easy when you think about it. This playbook clearly shows that if everybody does their job — holds their block, runs through the right hole — we will score a touchdown every single time.” As a player, I believed him. As a leader, I see where he was wrong. And for the record, I think we lost all but one game that season.
Why? Because what looks good on paper is often not a reflection of the unpredictable, fragile nature of our reality. Maybe the person I was supposed to block wasn’t standing in the place we expected. Or, in today’s setting, the person we were counting on to deliver a presentation got stuck in another state because of a canceled flight. The world is full of unexpected circumstances and accepting impracticable expectations is detrimental to the growth of a company. We need to expect that our plans will continuously change and, when they do, celebrate our ability to adapt to meet unexpected obstacles rather than dwell on the challenges themselves.
As we enter a new phase of growth as a company, there is only so far into the future I can see. I thrive on the opportunity of the unseen, but I recognize that others may not. While I like to look at the big picture, others revel in the details. Regardless of what drives me, I’ve learned as we grow that clarity drives a team. Transparency ensures nothing gets lost in translation, embraces the fact that life happens, and focuses on a strong foundation to ensure we are set up to survive whatever unpredictable pass the industry throws at us.
So, yeah, growth can be exhausting but finding the right tools to keep in your toolbox as a leader is like caffeinating the company. It gives everyone a shot of energy and clears their minds to do their best work. So, let’s continue to grow, one lesson (and cup of coffee) at a time.