Commentary / Sean Doughtie

It’s the people, stupid

Most people are familiar with James Carville’s proclamation made during the 1992 presidential election, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Birthed in a moment of “war room” frustration, it became a mantra of the Clinton campaign, focusing attention on the country’s recession—attributed to then-president George Bush. It’s a great quote for wrangling people on to the core issue at hand.

Today, Taproot Creative celebrates its six-year anniversary. I spent some time this week reflecting on the business—our successes, our failures, the clients we’ve served and the areas we’ve grown. In the end, I found myself posing the same question I did when we started. (Coincidentally, it is one of the first questions we ask any new client.) “What makes you different? Why should people care about you?”

The answer came quickly, but what surprised me was how it has evolved over the years. There was a time when I might have responded, “It’s our creativity and our ability to integrate new technology.” No, not really. Nor, is it our wit or our ability to see common things in a different way. It isn’t our awards or accolades. Those things all play a role, and I’m tremendously proud of our accomplishments. But that isn’t what defines Taproot Creative.

It’s the people.

I know that sounds a bit cliche and maybe even overly simplistic. But it’s not. In his book Good to Great, author Jim Collins refers to getting the “right people on the bus” as one of the first steps to building a great company. That’s no small feat, in and of itself. But, once they’re on the bus, how do you keep them there? I’m not so arrogant as to think I have it all figured out. But I can say that we have very low turnover at Taproot Creative.

Further, I’ve never worked in an environment where morale was higher. Our team genuinely likes and appreciates each other and there’s no drama. (Remember, we’re a marketing firm—graphic designers, web developers, account executives and PR folks. And I said “no drama” with a straight face.) Why is that? I’ve been embedded in this particular environment so long now that I don’t really notice it. But when new people come in, they do, and they ask me about it.

Here are a few thoughts on how we’ve attempted to build our culture at Taproot Creative. I’m not saying that they apply or would even be practical to every business. But they work for us. And, hey, I get to come to the office every day and collaborate with the most talented group of men and women I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. So I’ll take it.

Hire with a longview.

For better or worse, we’ve never hired based on “need.” Every person that I’ve hired at Taproot Creative was brought on because I saw something special in them that would benefit the business. More times than not, we didn’t even have a defined staffing need. I simply saw the potential in what they could bring to the company. Hiring based on “need” can lead to settling, or forcing someone who may not be a good fit.

Provide people with a voice.

Everyone at Taproot Creative knows what the hierarchy of authority is—but it’s unnecessary. There’s mutual respect and, within the confines of our building, everyone has the freedom to voice their opinion—with respect—without repercussions. I don’t want a staff that agrees with me because I’m the boss. I want a team who challenges me because I hired them for a reason: They have a clearer and more refined understanding of certain challenges than I do, and they respect their craft—and our clients—too much to do the “good” thing instead of the “best” thing. (Aside: I tell my team that my goal is to be the dumbest person in the company. Sure, that’s a bit tongue-in-cheek and self-deprecating but you get the point. Marry “up” and hire “up.”)

Don’t overlook the intangible.

Don’t assume that money alone is the primary motivator of people. Yes, everyone wants to make a comfortable salary but there are many intangibles that can cause a person to stay, or leave. When in doubt, ask. Find out what motivates your team and what’s important to them.

Build relationships.

In a small business especially, don’t be afraid to build relationships with your team. I hear people get all twisted up about separating “business” and “personal” lives and not becoming “friends” with co-workers and subordinates. Sure, there are lines that, as adults, everyone in the office should maintain. But, come on… During the work week, I spend more time with these men and women than I do with my wife and kids. I know their spouses and their kids. That’s called a relationship. We are, in a sense, a family. To try and ignore that reality creates awkwardness and mistrust in the workplace, and certainly stunts creativity in an industry like ours.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Does my team check their personal email, or go on Facebook, or make personal phone calls, or show up 10 minutes late, or take a late lunch? I don’t care. Do they do their job with excellence and integrity? Do they take care of our clients and represent the company well in public? Do they look after the interests of the business, and not just their own? That’s what matters to me.

I don’t micro-manage how my team spends their time. That’s stifling and, in my opinion, a bit insulting. Most of my people are salaried. That means I pay them $XX/year for a service. They all know that sometimes that may mean a 50-hour work week. So, the other side of the coin is that I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re doing what they need to do, whenever they need to do it, to be as productive for the company as possible.

Everyone knows the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of results come from 20 percent of effort. Giving people room to recharge their batteries regularly is important maintaining productivity.

Encourage what’s important.

As much as you want your team to feel exactly the same about the business as you do, it just ain’t gonna happen. That’s the first expectation that needs to be set. But, you can learn a lot from their priorities too. It’s easy, as a small business owner, to begin treating your job as your life. It isn’t. Make sure you have one of your own and make sure you respect the personal life of your team. I do everything I can to support and encourage family—it’s the single most important responsibility we have in life. School play? Go see it. Need to leave 30 minutes early to make the kid’s baseball game? I’ll see you tomorrow. Half-day on Friday so you can head out of town for your anniversary? Have fun. Strong families beget strong employees beget a strong business.

Have fun.

Enjoy the work you do and the people you work with. Laugh, joke, have fun. Sometimes people forget that it really is okay to smile and have fun at work. Bring in doughnuts or knock off a bit early one day and go grab a beer together. There really isn’t much more to add to that. Life is short. Have fun. Watch what happens to your team.

In closing, I think that people primarily want to be valued and to feel that they are contributing to something that matters. A certain degree of structure is necessary in every business. But, within those boundaries, providing people room to figure out what works best for them pays dividends in productivity, and produces happy, loyal employees. I cannot begin to express how grateful I am for the team around me at Taproot Creative. Their hard work, dedication and loyalty has helped our business prosper and grow in the face of tremendous economic uncertainty and instability. Without them, I’m just a bald guy who draws pretty pictures. I look froward to seeing what new hills we can conquer in the next six years.