Three Lessons I Learned in my First Year as an Agency President


When I became president of One Smooth Stone a year ago, I quickly learned the functional duties of the position, but it took some time for me to fully appreciate the stewardship role that comes with the title. Recently I’ve reflected on some lessons I have learned while growing into my role as president and steward of the company’s future. Here are three that stand out:

Culture Is King

Culture is king. It builds and bonds people in the workplace and beyond. But culture is like a garden: it needs to be nurtured to grow properly.

My predecessor, Kevin Olsen, did a great job doing simple yet very important and intentional things that nurtured our culture. He would start every day sitting at the table in our agency’s kitchen just having coffee, ready to greet the Stonies. As each Stonie visited the room to store their lunches in the refrigerator and grab coffee, he would ask a simple question: how are you doing today? While Kevin and I share a genuine concern for our colleagues, our styles of expressing this are different. I am more the type who wants to get down to work in my office every morning. But I learned from Kevin’s example and from input from my team members that I need to make a regular effort to touch base with Stonies, too. So, I’m scheduling quarterly personal lunches now with every Stonie just to check in with them. At One Smooth Stone, we often have deep discussions to debrief about client projects, but as president, it’s my job to make sure we have deep discussions about how we’re doing personally. It’s an important responsibility . . . and a great privilege.

Tending to culture also means making sure the office follows the kind of rituals that bond a team. For instance, at One Smooth Stone, we have a tradition of what we fondly refer to as “mandatory fun.” From time to time, we give each other permission to set aside 15 minutes to do something fun together, even a brief game in the office. I’ve learned that it’s important to take the lead to keep those traditions alive. And it’s my job to either do so personally or make sure someone else is willing to take the lead.

Maintaining a culture also means pruning the weeds that can crop up in a garden — like the weed of negativity. Let’s face it: we all have setbacks on the job. We make mistakes. We lose business we want to win. When a setback occurs, it’s easy to get down in the dumps and stay there. At One Smooth Stone, we deal with professional setbacks by instituting what we call the 24-hour rule. When a setback occurs, we give each other 24 hours to mope. After 24 hours, you need to get back in the saddle and leave the negativity behind. And we hold each other accountable to follow the rule.

The 24-hour rule is incredibly effective. I’ve seen employees rebound remarkably well from setbacks when they know they can have 24 hours to reflect. The rule gives them a chance to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and say, “I’m going to make it better.”

When you invest in a culture, you build something that transcends the business and sustains you personally. I learned this truth when my mother became seriously ill in August. I had to disappear for a few days to be with her. My colleagues knew I was hurting. They reached out to let me know they were thinking of me. They uplifted me. I leaned on them, and as I did, I was reminded of how special a strong culture can be.

At One Smooth Stone, our culture of kindness makes it possible for us to lean on each other as we encounter personal challenges that inevitably occur in life.

Diverse Perspectives Make Everyone Better

When a new leader comes into a role, it’s typical for people around him or her to ask, where are we going as a company? What’s your vision for where we are going? And leaders do need to possess a vision. But you don’t define that vision from the top down. You give others an opportunity to contribute their ideas. The diversity of perspective makes you and everyone around you so much more effective.

We make diversity of perspective an everyday reality. For instance, we recently instituted a practice in which we invite one another to observe each other’s events. The designated Stonie — someone who is not part of that project team — visits the event; interacts with attendees, team members and crew; wanders throughout the event space; and watches how the team does its job. The observer then gives feedback to the Stonie in charge of the event on what they observed so that the lead Stonie can make adjustments as desired. Simultaneously, the observer gains new insights which they may choose to implement in their own events. It’s a win/win that embraces the diversity of experiences, perspectives and style and makes everyone and every project better.

Stewards Are Leaders

When you are president, you naturally manage crucial operational issues such as our agency’s bottom-line performance. But being a steward means asking, how am I preparing employees to become better people and live more enriched lives? Am I leaving this company in a better place for the next person who becomes president? Asking these questions not only makes you a steward of the company; you also develop leadership.

This truth hit home not long ago when I was sitting at my desk managing some communications related to my role as president of the Board of Directors of Seven Generations Ahead, an environmental sustainability non-profit organization. A young Stonie watched me sign some correspondences and asked, “So how do I get to the level of being on a board of directors? What does it take?” It was clear to me that he wanted to grow. And he wanted to give to his community. And I have the responsibility and privilege to help him.

Being a leader means mentoring people and encouraging them to fulfill their potential as members of society beyond what they do at work. At One Smooth Stone, we match everyone’s donations to nonprofits because we want to encourage people to give back to society. Having a program such as matching donations is one way to exercise corporate leadership. But mentoring people informally is as important — taking time to work with each Stonie on their growth goals and taking a personal interest in their lives. So, I’ve taken it upon myself to go beyond the important task of career development. I take an interest in how they are developing as people. As I consider the months ahead in 2017, I look forward to being a stronger personal mentor.

Looking at 2017

I have loved my first year as president and I hope to be president of this great agency for many years to come. But, I know I will not be president forever. I and the leadership team at One Smooth Stone want to leave the company in the hands of people who are smarter and more talented than we are. We also want them to be people with values — people who live our brand attributes of smart, fast, kind. You cannot be an effective steward unless you get to know your employees personally and help them develop into the giving and caring members of society. By being mentors, we’re thinking for the long haul.

As president, I am more conscious of the fact that I am part of a larger network of employees, clients, business partners and agency evangelists. Networking means a lot more than finding contacts to grow the business. Networking means building relationships with other leaders — relationships through which leaders sustain each other. A couple months ago, in the midst of my mother’s hospice care, I received a phone call from the CEO of a company within our industry that I admire tremendously. She simply called to let me know I was on her mind and that she wanted to know if there was anything she could do to support me. Leaders support each other. They learn from each other. I’m looking forward to being an active participant in the support, learning, mentoring and care of the people with whom I have the privilege of leading and serving in 2017. And I invite fellow leaders to join me in doing the same.

We Love Live®. For a complimentary 30-minute consultation on how to build your brand and inspire an audience through events and communications, please contact Brian Duffy by calling 630.427.4235 or by emailing




One thought on “Three Lessons I Learned in my First Year as an Agency President

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s