I’m an undercover CEO

Sherlock Holmes silhouetteFor a dozen years I ran my own agency, Magic Hour Communications, which I owned and was president and chief bottle washer at.

We started in 1998 as a marketing communications agency providing marketing videos and interactive (mostly CDs then) for large companies and morphed into a SaaS web design and development firm with our own proprietary CMS focused on the academic market. Since selling it in 2009 I’ve worked at three other agencies: Global Internet Management (GIM), which bought Magic Hour, Overdrive Interactive and ISITE Design. Although I don’t know if I’ll ever head a company again, this has given me a valuable opportunity to reflect on my management in the light of experiencing the management of others.

In Katherine Graham’s memoir Personal History she mentions how after Warren Buffett bought part of The Washington Post and joined the board she often asked him questions about what they should do. He once replied that she seemed to think that running a company is like taking a business school test in which there’s only one right answer. And there isn’t one right answer. Even in the same industry companies can be as different as Hershey’s, Godiva and Taza – especially now, as new information and production technologies have unleashed unlimited options for organizing a company (Do everything in-house? Creative in-house but production outside? Work off-shore? Etc.!!!)

Successful companies can have many different strategies, cultures, approaches to sales, marketing and product development, policies on how they treat employees, and everything else. Although all could call themselves “digital agencies”, the three companies I have recently worked at have very different approaches:

  • GIM “helps companies meet these [business] challenges by combining new Internet technologies with a solid application development methodology. Our solutions range from Content Management and E-learning systems to portal and E-commerce systems.” GIM has its own proprietary CMS. It acquired Magic Hour for its presence in the education market and its recurring revenue model.
  • Overdrive is essentially a digital direct marketer, using SEO, SEM, online advertising and other online demand generation techniques to stuff the top of the funnel
  • ISITE is an experience design agency (“Companies that are loved win”) with a strong technical staff able to implement these designs through building complex websites with industry-leading content management systems, and mobile apps. And it provides post-launch analytics and optimization.

Other digital agencies are more focused on creative, or serving a particular industry vertical, such as healthcare, or exclusively developing mobile apps, or implementing a particular technology such as a marketing automation system, Sharepoint or a leading CMS. They’re all viable strategies.

Some companies have charismatic leaders (or, in some cases, leaders who merely think they’re charismatic) — although in his excellent book “Good to Great” Jim Collins says that a charismatic leader usually is contrary to the long-term success of the company. The most successful long-term leaders are low key and focused on operations and keeping everyone headed toward a single, well-articulated goal. Execution is usually more important than strategy; there are many possibly-successful strategies, but they can all be killed by poor execution.

In working in these three companies I’ve been able to witness different styles of management, approaches to sales (my area in the companies), and hear the kind of conversations and comments that often don’t get to the top person. (And, frankly, they often don’t need to. 🙂 ) I’ve been impressed by bold visions and directions, and disappointed in failures to execute on what seem like easy, yet potentially significant, improvements.

This is also about distance and the opportunity to reflect. Steve Jobs was fired from Apple in 1985. Over the next 12 years he acquired and built Pixar and started NeXT Computer. The success of Pixar is obvious. And while not commercially successful, NeXT provided the technology that became the core for iOS when Jobs returned to Apple. He returned a far more capable executive for having been away for over a decade. In his famous Stanford University graduation speech Jobs said of his time away from Apple, “The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

I’m not a Jobs, but our society, and our increasingly competitive business world, demands results now, even more than in the 1930s or 1980s. And social media and the Internet are forcing us into an almost tyrannical now. I still have demands on me in the positions I’ve held over the past several years, but at the same time I’ve been able to experience three very different, successful companies and styles of leadership. It’s not an opportunity that’s easy to get while being CEO. I hope that I’ve learned and grown from it.

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