Daring to do nothing

An alternative take on a leader's first 90 days, from Lucky Generals' Katie Lee

In my last year of primary school, I won the  ‘Most Helpful Girl’ cup. I’m a rescuer by nature and intensely task orientated, I’ll probably have ‘Got Shit Done’ written on my tombstone. Taking things slowly doesn’t come easily to me and yet this was the brief I was given on being appointed CEO of Lucky Generals almost a year ago.

Now six years old we have an extraordinary culture because it was specifically set up and built that way. We’re very careful in who we hire and we treat those people very well. More importantly, though, we give them responsibility and the chance to make great work. Our churn rate is about 7% (industry average is 31%) which says everything, even as we grow at pace. This culture had been set by the founders and they were very clear with their brief:

“We are doing well, this agency has a very special culture, you don’t need to make your mark in any other way than becoming a part of that culture.”

I had no idea how tough that brief that would be.

Society and the advertising industry love rags to riches stories. Turn-arounds and startups are exciting and new. Keeping things going is a much less sexy story to tell. Internally, people are watching to see what you’re going to do, how you’re going to stamp your mark on the place and what that signals about your leadership style. How do you build people’s confidence in you and lead an agency while simultaneously ‘doing nothing’?

For me, the best advice came from a book I’d been recommended: ‘An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth’. In this book, Chris Hadfield talks about how an astronaut can be a ‘minus one’, ‘a plus one’ or a  ‘zero’ in terms of the value they add to a situation. His advice was to always aim to be a ‘zero’.

Failure comes from trying to add value too soon. This fundamentally changed my view on what adding value really meant and in my first company meeting, I talked about this and landed my point that I was there to learn, not teach.

This learning has allowed me to develop a whole new leadership style and a very different approach to that classic “first 90 days” theory. I have summarised it into 5 points below:

  1. Change your primary focus from what isn’t working to what is. Seeing what works and why it works means you can actually make changes that stick.
  2. Let things run their course rather than interfering and then evaluating afterwards. It’s really surprising what you can learn from watching how people deal with a situation. And you’ll be amazed at how much more benefit can be gained from this approach, rather than stepping in and 'sorting it out'  earlier.
  3. Build relationships without motive and reframe what success of those first 90 days looks like from a spreadsheet of achievements to the host of positive relationships you’ve built.
  4. Don’t make changes to flatter your ego, which is ultimately often what desire for change comes down to. Progress makes you feel good and the tangible progress of change is the easiest way to measure it and reassure yourself of what you’re achieving. There have been many long and frank discussion between myself and my ego, but once you’re looking out for that voice, it’s amazing how often you can see it rearing its ugly head.
  5. Ultimately, none of this is possible without confidence. Both in yourself but also the confidence of those around you, to know that what you’re doing is the right thing.

It should go without saying that it’s only the right approach in certain situations. There are plenty of instances where immediate change was the absolute priority. But the founders’ brief set me up for success and it has taught me a lot about myself. It’s been challenging - I do judge my success on what I achieve and how others perceive me so it’s tested my confidence at times.

But what this year has taught me, is that with 59% profit growth you dont have to stay commercially stagnant, you can still win the most helpful cup and get a huge amount of shit done by doing nothing. It’s just a different way of getting there.