|The LLC Team in October, 2011 - Melissa Martin, Susan Kriskey, Lauren Thayer, Lisa Lori, Alexis Blais and Joanna Scholtz|
Every day the headlines tell us how hard things are for so many people, companies and organizations. When the first recession hit in 2008, our business was no exception. I thought at the time, wow, not even 2002 – after 9/11, was as difficult as this. I began to dread emails that said, “Lisa do you have 5 minutes to talk?” because I knew what was coming. After all, for many companies public relations is viewed as discretionary (despite the fact they need it during hard times more than ever) and so we saw many of our clients dramatically reduce our budgets or tell us they lost their job and virtually entire departments were being dissolved. It was a tough year all around. In the last 18 months, however, LLC has seen a dramatic turnaround and although we have been spinning from the whirl wind of activity, there has also been time to reflect on why our business is doing better and what we have learned from it. Overwhelming, it has been the strength of our team at all levels that has helped us recover and flourish despite the difficult environment. The team’s ability to work together, respect each other and get the job done gives you the best results but also attracts the best clients. Sounds easy to achieve but when dealing with people ‘capital’ it can be extremely tricky. Here are a few lessons from the last 18 months.
In retail, there is a saying ‘location, location, location’. In PR, it should be talent, talent, talent. Finding the best talent at all levels is extremely hard but this market has enlarged the talent pool of who is available. It has given agencies a diverse array of prospects to choose from rather than just those that are available right now. Still the chances of making poor employee choices are high. In PR, you win an account and you might need to staff it tomorrow. I’ve learned rash hiring like this can be terrible for the employee and us. Rather than go through the pain of hiring and letting people go when the relationship goes south, it is far better to gracefully turn away clients so that we can continue to provide excellent service to our existing clients. We can then add new business after we’ve found the best new employees. This slows growth in the short term but in the long term strengthens your team, reputation and your results.
In one of my former jobs, I worked for an innovative company called The Body Shop and for a true talent founder Anita Roddick. She created a questionnaire for prospective employees that was more of a personality test than a review of your resume and the goal was to see what kind of values you had and if you were right for the company. This caused more than a few employees to snicker that it really had nothing to do with credentials and shouldn’t be done. In my old age, I am starting to see the wisdom of this questionnaire and wondering if we too shouldn’t have a quiz for prospective employees about their motivation for work, applying to our company and what kind of work ethic they have. Personality, values and motivation can be as important as education, credentials and ambition. If you’re smart but arrogant, trained but uninspired, ambitious but selfish you’re not going to do me much good. Think about it. Leader or follower?
PR agencies love the rush that winning a new client gives them but what about the agency picking the client. Ridiculous you think? Not really. Vetting prospective clients is possible. This past year, our growth has been deliberate and steady partly because we want to provide excellent service and partly because we are wary of increasing our payroll. That means working hard to grow our existing business first and cultivate new prospects second. New business is far more time consuming and risky. However, we all want and need new business so when we get those calls, rather than tell them anything is possible, we try to interview them extensively to see what their expectations are, budget, timelines and most importantly, if we can hit it out of the park with them. Of course, there will always be variables we can’t anticipate, politics being the most significant, but we can make sure there is a commitment on the client side to success and work to achieve it. We aren’t interested in being a vendor but a partner and if our client agrees with this, we have the tools for success. If we see any trouble spots such as the ‘we can’t pay your regular fees now but we will grow’ we have just got to walk away. I can’t pay our employees with future promises so I can’t take on clients who can’t pay our fees.
Finally, a genuinely hungry college intern or grad vs. the best educated one usually make far better employees. I know this may fly in the face of everything we think about how to get ahead in this world. I personally want to have my children go to the best schools but if they don’t have that drive to succeed on their own it will be an expensive and futile exercise in my opinion. When I moved our offices from NYC to surburban CT, I knew it would be harder to find entry level or intern talent of the caliber of NYC university kids but I never anticipated it would be because kids just weren’t hungry enough for the work. The big difference? Living at your parent’s suburban home rent free vs. toughing it out in NYC. Parents do their college kids or college grads no favors by paying their cell phone bills, car payments or buying them closets full of designer clothing. I recently had a father call me to ask me to reissue his daughter’s intern check that she had failed to cash for a full year because she ‘needed’ the money. When I told him he should have his daughter deal with her job instead of him, he said ‘ you know kids these days, a 19 or 20 year old doesn’t understand banks’.
Really? In 12 years of owning my business, I have never had a vendor or employee fail to cash a check. With so many young people living at their parents houses, driving cars their parent pay for etc. etc... it is difficult for them to need and understand the value of money. Instead of thinking of it in terms of rent and food as I did when I was starting out, they think in terms of handbags and shoes. As an employer competing with this cultural shift, it is difficult to make 20 somethings understand why their entry level salary won’t cover their own one bedroom doorman building or explain why their showing up late every day is costing me and our clients money. Our 20 something’s pay their bills, they value their money so they value mine.
Yes, times have been tough for small business over the past two years but that means taking a cold hard look at business choices all around. It is hard to get a job out of college, it is damn hard to start a business and even harder to fire people, but there is also a clarity to the work now. There is not the luxury of making poor choices. Are you willing to make the sacrifices, do what it takes to succeed at that job or are you only interested in living the lavish life that you think you are due? Look around at the tracks of most of the successful people you read about, I’m talking about great men like the late Steve Jobs or the next generation of fashion ladies like the founders of Rent The Runway or Gilt Group – great ideas, innovations take hard work. Values our immigrant predecessors understood and came to America for. Instead I hear intelligent people tell me about how that family of women on reality television are brilliant businesswomen, we all know how they catapulted themselves into the public sphere and it isn’t pretty. We need to emphasis substance over style in more ways than one.
I wish instead young women would look to one of my idols – Kathy Giusti, founder and CEO of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF). Kathy and the MMRF are world renowned for changing the way cancer research is conducted and for challenging the medical establishment. Oh, and she did this after she was diagnosed with cancer. Kathy was recently profiled in the book The Humanitarian Leader in Each of Us which makes a persuasive case that anyone with motivation, energy and perseverance can take charge of making a difference in society. Kathy is that rare breed of excellence (she is a grad of HBS) and perseverance coupled with a humanity that we all should emulate.