As a leader of others, where do you focus your time and attention? If you are a 'lifer' like me, having grown up through the ranks of your organization or industry, you may be predisposed to leading by example. And while your depth of hands-on experience provides authenticity to these efforts, you may be unintentionally limiting your true scope of impact (i.e. your leverage). Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way, as it took a run-in with a lesson in accounting for me to recognize how limited a leader I had become.
To help paint the picture, I'm an agency guy and I have been all of my career. Other than a brief stint with a family business, I entered the agency world fresh out of university as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Account Coordinator. And I loved it! Not just the creative side, but the business of generating ROI for clients and ourselves through the discipline of marketing. This passion got me hooked on the client/account side of the business, where I happily progressed my way through the ranks.
When I was in my early thirties, I became the Director of Account Services at Think Shift. This meant that I managed clients as well as the client management team. Because of this, I was responsible for the monthly client billings this team produced. And because of that, I would, more times than not, get a knock on my office door the last week of the month by my bosses asking about the monthly billings - Where are they at? Is there more we can put through? How are we doing on our budget?
This quickly became known as the “Hold Laz by the Ankles” conversation. And while there was pressure associated with this, it made me feel important since I was the money maker. The bread winner. The meal ticket. Ultimately, I felt like my direct efforts with clients and our work made me significantly responsible for our success, and because of this, I embraced a lead by example/walk the talk leadership style that kept me focused "in the business."
However, after some time, this feeling of importance shifted to a sense of burden. Not just because of the repetitiveness and constant need to deliver, but because fulfilling the role meant that I had to focus the majority of my time on the work, not "on the business." This meant less time spent developing our client management team, our product offerings, our operational efficiencies and, most importantly, our client base. Ultimately, it got so bad that instead of focusing on managing and growing my team and their billings, I focused on growing my own billings simply because it was easier.
Not only did this make me hate the “Are there more billings?” questions, but it also made me resent the “How’s the new product?”, “How’s the team’s growth?” and the “How's the client development?” questions. I felt like I never had time to focus on anything but billing because others forced me to be the money maker: they were the ones holding me by the ankles, after all.
What I didn't realize is that my problem wasn't really caused by others forcing me to focus on billings: it originated from my path-of-least-resistance mentality. As the “teach a man to fish” proverb goes, I was so focused on catching the fish we needed and had gotten so good at it that I didn’t focus on teaching others to do the fishing.
Unexpectedly, it was a meeting on financials that finally clued me in on the error of my ways. We were reviewing the income statement and balance sheet for the past year when it happened: I realized that I had been 100% focused on the income statement and had spent no time at all on the balance sheet.
I don’t mean this literally, as in I would print off the income statement everyday to review it (the P&L report was another matter). But I had focused on executing and billing instead of teaching and building. I had been generating income for the end of the month instead of creating assets for the future. While I believed I was invaluable to the organization, I wasn’t actually adding value.
Ever since my epiphany, I find myself applying the thinking of the Income Statement and Balance Sheet to many facets of business, as well as my life in general. For example, when working on marketing strategies, I look for a balance between activities that will generate awareness, leads and revenue over a period of time (like campaigns and promotions) with the creation of marketing assets that will make generating awareness, leads and revenue easier going forward (like content, data and owned media). And, when working on resourcing and team development, I look for talent and learning opportunities that not only improve our ability to execute today (like project management training) but also those that will allow us to improve our capacity to deliver value tomorrow (like leadership development).
Even when spending time with my loved ones, I aspire to not just make it home for dinner more this month but to build a business and work-life balance that will allow me to be home for dinner for years to come.
I’ve also come to find that there is a reason why very few of the greatest business leaders have mottos of 'lead by doing' or 'work in not on the business.' While these may sound endearing, the greatest value a leader can provide is not the work that delivers results today, but the effort to create assets that will consistently deliver better results going forward.
As a marketer it pains me to say, but the accountants were right after all.
To learn more about incorporating the Income Statement and Balance Sheet tool in your company, check out our video on Think Shift Academy.