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March 30, 2005
Sins of Omission: Tough Decisions Agency Executives Hate to Make

“What new business strategy makes the most sense? How can we create an agency culture that fosters creativity? How can we improve the performance of our people? What do we have to offer that is uniquely ours?”

These are the kinds of questions agency executives often ask in the strategic planning retreats I facilitate. They’re important questions about the future, and senior management teams engage them with gusto.

But there are other questions that people don’t like to think about. For instance, “Who on the staff is detrimental to our business?” Sooner or later, this uncomfortable question comes up. We all know who the detrimental people are. They make the same mistakes over and over, disrespect clients, have bad attitudes, and stir up trouble on the staff.

I have rarely encountered an agency that didn’t have at least one person in the “detrimental” category. We often hate to admit we’ve made a bad hire, and four years later that person is still there, stirring up resentment among all the rest of the staff that is working hard and producing results. We owe it to the detrimental people—and their more effective colleagues—to move them out, even to help them find another job if we can.

Not firing someone soon enough is one of the Sins of Omission I’ve noted in working with senior executives. These are the decisions we’re reluctant to make. We put them off way too long because they’re painful.

And yet it’s the Sins of Omission that often keep us from achieving our great goals. Peter Drucker, the grand old man of management, says that we will never achieve our best potential if we are not willing to abandon old things...abandon clients, processes, policies, products and services, employees. We can’t do great new things when the bad old things take up all our attention and resources.

A second Sin of Omission: Once we get a staff of great people, we don’t always let them do what they do best.

Think about how we go about hiring people. We decide exactly what we need and we write a job description. We then hire a live human being. Surprise! The person and the job description just never seem to quite align. We hire a fantastic art director who turns out to be a lousy presenter. Our top-notch account person is brilliant on strategy and can handle the most difficult client but seems to have a genetic defect when it comes to monitoring budgets.

Some of these problems can be alleviated with training and personal attention. If you’ve got a talented person who’s highly motivated, they will improve with time. But they are not likely to be brilliant at those new skills. At best, they’ll be pretty good. That’s just how human beings are.

In the book First Break All the Rules, a study of thousands of managers who get excellent results, the authors tell us that the smartest thing we can do is toss out the job description. Figure out how to design the job around the person. The more of a person’s time is spent on what they are brilliant at, the more consistently brilliant they’ll be. Our challenge as leaders is to recognize each person’s unique talents and give them more opportunities to use them...even if they weren’t exactly what we hired them for.

Drucker is adamant on this point. He says it’s a much smarter investment for people to work on developing their natural talents than to try to learn things they’ll never be good at.

A third Sin of Omission: Not firing bad clients.

We know who they are. They pay late. They give lousy direction and then blame the agency when the work isn’t on target. They expect miraculous results on shoestring budgets. They have an unerring instinct for the most conservative solution to every problem. They abuse your people, call you at home on the weekend, and hate the idea of your making money on their business.

We often hang on to them because they’re cash cows, or because they’ve been with us a long time. Next time you get a big new business win, suck it up and resign your worst client. There is no single thing you can do that will make your staff more delighted.

Another Sin of Omission: Not abandoning what doesn’t work.

In almost every company, there’s something that doesn’t work like it was supposed to. It could be the new accounting software that turns out to be clunkier than the old system. It might be the guy we hired to start a new P.R. department whose many contacts and frequent business lunches don’t turn into actual business. Or the new credentials presentation we spent thousands of dollars on but so far hasn’t helped win a single new piece of business.

It’s a classic human reaction. When we are so invested—financially and emotionally—in something, we think we can’t afford to get out. In accounting, it’s called “sunk costs.” We’ve already got tons of money sunk in the deal. If we pull out now, all that money will be wasted. So we keep investing more money, hoping it will turn around, when all the signs tell us it never will.

Walking away is one of the most difficult of business decisions. Not only are we giving up on our initial investment, but also our dearly loved big idea. It’s not only expensive, it’s embarrassing.

These decisions and others—the tough calls we hate to make—often derail our best strategies. But making them soon will open up the space to create the future we’re truly capable of.

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When agencies and clients need to improve their internal teamwork, they call upon Sheila Campbell. Sheila is president of Wild Blue Yonder, a consulting firm specializing in strategy for marketing-oriented companies. She is co-author of Retreats That Work: Designing and Conducting Effective Offsites, and frequently conducts workshops for the 4A's.
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