GROWING PAINS: MOVING FROM AN ENTREPRENEURIAL TO A PROFESSIONAL STRUCTURE Alicia Mellish
The descriptor ‘entrepreneur’ conjures up images of a dynamic individual, driven, ambitious, creative...perhaps a little maverick. Working with an entrepreneur and within an entrepreneurial structure can feel exciting and may be particularly attractive to today’s graduating work force – a millennial population that has torn up the rulebook on professional progression and the traditional career path. However, in order to grow a business with entrepreneurial roots, it is necessary to develop the established structure, moving focus and pressure away from the founding individual, in order to empower the team and ultimately realise the business’s true long term potential.
• To identify key areas of pressure and anxiety build-up within the agency
• How to lessen team dependency through delegated decision making and shift to a professional structure
• That the operational clarity delivered through a professional structure need not be to the detriment of creativity associated with entrepreneurialism
Underlying anxiety identified within the PR industry
When broken down, the skillset required of the consummate PR professional goes beyond tangible capabilities, such as release writing, client reporting or event management. It even goes beyond the less tangible requirements of the capacity for creative thought and far-reaching network development.
I believe a truly talented PR has an innate ability to instil total confidence in their client - nurturing and developing that client’s trust in their counsel and dependency on their services - whilst maintaining a professional and detached position, which keeps one eye on agency profit and the other on further opportunities for business.
However, walking the fine line between satisfying both agency and client needs can, in fact, be the source of great anxiety for agency teams. Often, while people might be aware of feeling anxious, the source of the anxiety is not explored and therefore a solution cannot be found. This is particularly true of businesses built on an entrepreneurial structure and if left unaddressed can start to have a detrimental affect on the day-to-day working and operations of the agency.
The solution? A move towards a more professional structure – one which incorporates a distinct delegated decision making framework that will empower its agency members and shift team dialogue, taking everyday interactions from the personal to the professional.
The entrepreneurial structure examined
There is a universal defining element that identifies an entrepreneurial structure regardless of industry or sector - an acute dependence on a single individual (or ‘leader’) at the top of the working hierarchy.
Such a dependency can distract an entire agency away from the professional task at hand and towards a focus on the personal:
Whilst initially, one person making all decisions can make an agency nimble, reactive, as well as proactive and fast moving, in time, should business growth be the objective, the leader will be unable to continue addressing / tackling the volume of decisions required of him/her. Unfortunately, the existing team (used to working within an entrepreneurial structure) is unlikely to be equipped to engage in the decision making process required of them, having not previously been granted the freedom to make such judgements for themselves.
The team’s reluctance to take control, driven by anxiety around making mistakes, can be seen by the leader as a shirking of responsibility and a reluctance to assume accountability.
The leader, far from reassured by the team’s efforts, may feel it necessary to take back control, which in turn keeps the team in a dependent state. This dependent state will feel less anxiety provoking to the team and they will lean towards the more comfortable position of operating within the boundaries of the known, rather than unknown, structure.
The potential for sustainable business growth at this point becomes virtually impossible.
With dependency comes familiarity. Whilst a friendly working environment can be productive and comfortable to work within, it is more important when it comes to discussing client work and related tasks that professionalism be maintained. The danger within an entrepreneurial structure, where personalities (most notably the leader) are inherently the focus of the staff hierarchy, feedback to the team can risk feeling personal rather than professional. Agency line managers may struggle to find a way to clearly communicate their expectations of an individual’s output, leaving little against which to judge performance.
Over time, the development of the team, key to the development of the business, can become a struggle as individuals continue to be held in a dependent state, where they are unclear on performance expectations and their own career progression. The team, regardless of their talent and capability, will eventually lose motivation.
Moving towards a professional structure
The key to addressing this dependent state and a demotivated team, is to shift the agency towards a professional structure.
This shift requires the entrepreneur to take a bold step towards implementing a delegated decision making framework for the entire team (from the most junior to the most senior team players). All decisions delegated should be grade appropriate and clearly communicated to the agency overall, but then decided on within account teams on a project-by-project basis.
The relinquishing of control and the responsibility of new found autonomy will be anxiety provoking for the leader and the team respectively. But, just as with the inherent anxiety felt when working in PR, it is important for this to be identified and acknowledged. It should be made clear to the team that allowances will be made for mistakes and that this is an acceptable part of the agency’s development as a whole.
If the leader is fully committed to and supportive of the transition, they will start to see the team assume a greater level of accountability around their work and in turn apply increased consideration and thought moving forwards. The team will slowly move towards a place of empowerment and the intense pressure, previously felt by the leader, will dissipate.
The tools to maintaining a professional structure
Physically documented framework
Just as a good agency has detailed job specifications available for existing and prospective employees to refer to, for the delegated decision making framework to be effective, it is necessary to have clear guidelines available for the team to go back to.
These should detail more than just payment approval limits and include tasks such as: at what level a press release can be signed off or what supplier should be used, through to the agreement of a scope of client work within a specified budget.
These specifications act as a guideline to setting up the roles and responsibilities on individual client projects and immediately set clear expectations of what is required of a team member. Creating a document template, where all decisions and responsibilities are laid out in black and white, will deliver clarity for all involved.
Should a decision not be made by an individual, it is understood that this will be noted and professional feedback will be expected. This clarity of expectation (and a move away from the personal) will lead to a less anxious dynamic between team members.
A professional structure working for the agency as a whole
Embedding a new way of working takes time and effort and it is vital that allowances are made for teething problems along the way. But, once established, the path will be clear for sustainable business growth.
• Not only will the leadership team be freed up to focus on longer term business development, but the wider team will feel a greater sense of empowerment and, as a consequence, commitment to the agency.
• Clarity of expectation will allow line managers to feedback on work, safe in the knowledge it will be received in a professional rather than personal way.
• The team will feel confident in their career progression and valued by the business, with the framework of output expectation and decision making a benchmarking tool that individuals (across all grades) can use to clearly demonstrate their professional progression. This in turn cannot be ignored by the senior team.
Of course, it is important not to rubbish the entrepreneurial structure from which a professional one develops. It is, after all, the crucial driver that delivers a business to this stage. But the key is knowing when to embrace the next stage of your agency’s life cycle!
Alicia Mellish is founder and MD of Stir PR. Starting out as one person with a laptop, the last six years has seen Stir grow and develop to a successful mid-sized agency with a client list of impressive food, drink and lifestyle brands. Today, Stir is part of Captivate, a group of multi discipline marketing agencies that value connected thinking combined with specialist execution. When not working, Alicia can be found sailing the high seas or seeking out, photographing (or buying) quirky interior design and furniture.