I know everything looks bleak. You feel like things are so far gone that you wonder if the only avenue left to you is to shut it down. It’s difficult in times like this to have clarity on your situation and know what to do next, but if you still have the fight in you and want to make this business work, I can help by telling you what you need to do. Then it’s up to you to do it.
Here are the steps you need to take.
Step One: Start Meditating
I’m not kidding. The first step in first aid is ‘take control’ and before you can take control of others or your situation you need to get control of yourself, so we’re starting here, with daily meditation. Begin right after you read this letter and then commit to five minutes, three times a day: when you get up in the morning, before you go to bed and one other time during the day, at lunch or another time of your choosing. You need to create moments of calm among the chaos and then work to spread those moments out until this is your dominant state. Yes, it’s a long journey but the steps are simple and the reward is powerful, if fleeting at first. Don’t get hung up on which of the many different forms of meditation right now. They’re all good, just pick one. If you’re new to this, start here and make it a new part of your daily routine.
Step Two: Establish a Morning Routine
You’re a model of inconsistency right now and while your desire for novelty is also the source of your creativity, you need to feel like you are in control of your day and environment. It’s time to establish some routine, beginning with your mornings. Get up at the same time everyday, no matter what. Do your meditation. Add exercise. All you need is seven minutes. If you don’t have an exercise routine, download the 7 Minute Workout app and get going. No membership or gym clothes required. You’re building from the inside out and you need strength and consistency in mind, body and routine.
Step Three: Smooth Out the Highs and Lows
Examine your stimulant (typically caffeine) and depressant (typically alcohol) intake and ask yourself if your levels need to change. If you have any sense of chaos, nervousness or uncertainty about you then cut down on the caffeine. If your nightly routine requires alcohol to decompress or you feel at all depressed about your situation then get rid of the booze altogether or save it for the weekend. All your crutches need to go. You’re building a new you.
Step Four: Show Up Like a Pro
The three steps above lead to something new: you showing up to work in a state of calm presence. The problem starts with you, the energy you create for yourself and the energy you transmit to others. You’ve been creating chaos when you need to be an example of quiet strength. Throughout the day your number one focus needs to be how you carry yourself and how you respond to external stimuli. Be a positive force in your people’s lives. Anyone can rise to this level and become an example of calm presence to others if they chose to do so. Even you. As a leader, you have a responsibility to chose to do this. Anese Cavanaugh’s book Contagious Culture describes this ‘showing up’ in a fantastic term: Intentional Energetic Presence. That’s you from now on: intentional, energetic and present. Leave behind any excuses why you can’t do this – your childhood trauma, how your ex-partner screwed you over, the bad economy or your ungrateful employees. It’s you, it’s you, it’s you, it’s always been you, so who are you going to be from now on? A new and better you. One who is always growing, always learning, taking calculated risks and showing up like a pro every day.
Once you take these first four steps you can turn your attention outward and focus on fixing the situation in addition to fixing yourself.
Step Five: Right-Size Your Employee Base
There is a person or people you should have let go a long time ago. You know who they are: they’re a poor fit culturally and it shows up in their attitude and their treatment of others, or they’ve made themselves indispensable by selfishly hoarding clients or areas of responsibility. You can’t afford such negative or indispensable people. Get rid of them. You may also just be over-staffed. Sometimes good people have to go, too. Good people are good people wherever they go and they would rather be set free to blossom elsewhere than feel like they’re dragging you down. Do it today or make the necessary arrangements to do it within the week. Do it with calm presence, like a pro. This looks like the most stressful, horrible thing you could do but you will find new power in the immediate aftermath of stepping up to this challenge. Use this step as an example to yourself and your team of how the new you is going to face the difficult challenges.
Step Six: Right-Size Your Client Roster
Now repeat the right-sizing exercise with your clients. Start with the bottom third – most of them should probably go. If you have more than 25 ongoing clients you might need to cut loose the bottom half. Is your gorilla client the problem? If so and you can’t cut them loose now without going under then give yourself a deadline to replace them – 3 to 6 months – and make all the other cuts you need to. Now look at your employee base again. Is another cut required to manage the new client load profitably?
Step Seven: Put Borders Around Work
You’ve let work bleed so far into your life that you don’t have much of one anymore. As a result, you’re nowhere near as focused or productive as you should be. The solution isn’t to work more, it’s to work less. You need to view time off not as the reward for hard work but as a requirement for creativity and productivity. From now on, time off comes first, not last, and it has to be real, proper time off. In Strategic Coach they describe these “free days” as a 24 hour period, from midnight to midnight, where you don’t work or think deeply about work. No email, no communication, no business reading – no nothing. Tell your people you’re off limits during these periods. It won’t work if you don’t. Watch your energy soar with two back-to-back free days. They’re called weekends. Your employees get about 135 free days a year. How about you? See the problem?
Step Eight: Hire a Strong Number Two
If you see yourself as a designer, a creative or an entrepreneur then you need a rock-solid operations person who can be the yang to your yin. Empower this person and enlist them to help you make the changes outlined here. You need to trust this person and let go of areas where you’re the bottleneck. Don’t hire someone like you. You’re in charge of vision and culture and one or two other things and your number two is in charge of everything else. They’re your new buddy on the road out of Hell and into Heaven. Choose well. Disclose everything.
Step Nine: Decide What You’re No Longer Going to Do
Grab a dedicated notepad and for one or two weeks, log everything you do every working day. At the end of that period take coloured highlighters and colour code these activities as follows: things that you love to do, are really good at and give you energy, colour green. Things that you hate to do or are really bad at, or anything that saps your energy, colour red (orange). The neutral stuff in the middle, colour blue. Now give this list to your number two and make a pact that you are going to quit doing everything in red as of that moment. Your number two will find others to do this stuff. These aren’t horrible tasks, they’re just horrible for you. Some people are great at these things so there are no excuses for holding onto them. You didn’t start your business so you could be a slave to your weaknesses. How much of the blue can you delegate? Consider outsourcing if you don’t have the staff. Eventually you should only do the things in green. Your number two needs to help you in this but you need to keep showing up with calm presence.
Step Ten: Adopt a Framework for How You Run Your Business
Have your number two research and implement one but you need to buy in and follow the system. Out of this framework will come the development of proper roles, responsibilities, the establishment of proper annual and quarterly goals, meeting formats and other mechanisms for staying on track to meet those goals and getting everyone in your firm doing what they do best. We use EOS, as do many firms these days, but the ReCourses functional model also provides much of this and is specific to independent creative firms.
Step Eleven: Enlist Others to Help
Find a peer group for support. That’s part of what we do at Win Without Pitching but there are broader peer groups that aren’t quite so focused on new business development, like EO, Strategic Coach, Vistage and Gazelles. Pick one. You need friends and accountability buddies. Consider therapy as well.
Step Twelve: Narrow The Focus of Your Firm
Your firm is poorly positioned. You’ve neglected a lot of difficult decisions over the years, the largest being what I call The Difficult Business Decision. You need to answer the questions ‘What will we do?’ and ‘For whom will we do it?’ You have to stand for something – to your clients and prospects, to your people and yourself. It takes guts to take the eleven steps identified above. Now apply those same guts to letting go of the past and choosing a narrow focus that will build a deep new expertise beyond anything you’ve done to date. This isn’t an exercise in wordsmithing; you are effectively building a new, more focused business out of the scraps of your old generalist firm. Your new focus will set you apart from your competitors and serve as the foundation for rebuilding the firm into a lucrative, well-oiled machine that creates value for your clients, a nourishing and challenging environment for your people and a rich and rewarding personal life for you.
That’s It. Now Decide
Your situation looks complicated and maybe hopeless from the inside, but from where I sit, unencumbered by the baggage of history, emotions and relationships, it’s clear what needs to be done. These twelve steps are the map. Now it’s just a matter of you bringing the courage and determination. Do you have it? If yes, get going. You’ve got some meditating to do and some plans to make. If you can’t muster the courage and determination then shut it down and get on with your life. It’s that simple, really. Entrepreneurship is not for everyone. Maybe your calling is elsewhere. The world’s not going to end because you closed your firm. Your people, clients and creditors will survive and so will you.
Either path is valid. Just pick one, get on with it and hold your head high. The act of choosing is the act of taking charge of your life and that’s the most important thing. I’ll support you whatever you decide.