Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Free Agent: Hesitation Is for Has-Beens

Free Agent: Hesitation Is for Has-Beens
by Lisa Seward

Five months into my new gig, I've figured out something it would have been nice to know before hanging out my shingle: I'm a lousy consultant. Oh, it's not that I don't network with the best of them. I'm actually finding that part of the job not nearly as loathsome as I always feared. (Open plug for LinkedIn: It helps considerably.) And I'm told I give good deck, so mark off "PowerPoint Princess" on the Basic Consultant Qualifications checklist. Meetings at coffee shops? Check. Listening skills? Working on those. (Hey, at least I'm honest.)

Nope, I'm flunking Consulting 101 because I actually have the nerve (or naïveté) to expect clients to take action on the suggestions they pay me to provide - preferably yesterday. Unlike many consultants, I'm not happy if my recommendations just sit on someone's desk. They are developed to inspire new ways of working and thinking, and my innate impatience causes me to break into hives if I sense anything less than outright urgency behind my clients' desire to act now.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently as I've worked to help clients jump into the murky land of "change management" with me. Over time, I have come to see that this tendency not to leap immediately into re-invention isn't something to be frustrated by, but rather is a sign of these clients' intelligence and respect for the magnitude of the job ahead of them. After all, we're living through nothing less than a Copernican shift in the media and marketing landscape, and it can't be addressed through minor process or structural evolutions - or even revolutions. It's bigger than that. We're talking about profound redefinitions of the most basic elements of our business: how we think, how we work together, who "we" even is, who calls the shots, how our jobs are defined, what our product is and how we make money. Easy, right? No wonder people aren't always dying to dive right in!

But while the hesitation is understandable, it's not acceptable if you want to come out of this period as a leader rather than a has-been. If you want to succeed in advertising today, you simply can't allow fear to keep you from changing. Feel it, yes, but succumb to it? Not an option. At best, sticking with what's always worked will put you at a competitive disadvantage when other companies are hawking their newer, more original and more effective ideas. At worst, it makes you a dinosaur.

Maybe you've read one of several recent write-ups on Goodby, Silverstein & Partners' turnaround over the past couple of years from a great creative yet highly traditional TV shop to a nimble, digital-centric agency that's winning awards (and gazillions in new business) through innovative, Web-based solutions. As the story goes, the partners had an epiphany about the need to change, so they announced to the creative department that the future of the agency lay in new media, and suggested that anyone who didn't want to be part of that future should work elsewhere. (Sure, a bit easier when you're considered one of the best places any creative type could work in this country, but still, you have to admire the cheek of it.) Fast-forward two years and they have made a huge transformation look almost easy.

Do you believe those partners didn't feel fear and doubt or face times during those two years when they realized they had no idea what they were doing? I would guess they encountered plenty of all this. Yet they forged ahead anyway, motivated by their certainty that the alternative - sticking with their TV heritage - was a path to a painful end marked by increasing irrelevance and decreasing business success.

There's no secret, and really nothing more to it than this: Have a clear vision about what is right for your company, take action, then take some more. Bit by bit, you'll find you are living your future. It's that simple - and, yes, that hard. Find outside guidance if you need it to get moving (especially to identify that whole "vision" thing), but not if it will just slow you down. Do whatever you must to resist the tendency to overthink. Waiting for the perfect plan or to have every question answered is just a recipe for continued mastery of yesterday.

It's not that you won't be afraid. Any smart person would be, facing what we're all facing. Let yourself feel the fear ... then change anyway.

Lisa Seward is the founder of Mod Communications, a strategic and media consultancy.

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