A Word From the Slopes: Push Past the Comfortable Trail

My wife and I have just returned from a ski trip to Aspen. That, in itself, is probably not worth writing about in a national magazine. Except for the fact that we haven’t skied in over 15 years. We were anxious about this adventure. Would the sport come back to us quickly, like riding a bike? Would we get injured?

I am pleased to report that we both came back to Philly injury-free. And that was after skiing on some slopes that we probably shouldn’t have been on. It wasn’t always pretty, but I felt I had to push myself out of my comfort zone and do it. I know this is the only way I can grow and get better at something.

It’s also true for running a successful ad agency. Agency leaders have to push their shops to places they’ve never been. That’s how the business can grow and evolve. It’s easy to get caught up in managing the staff and client relationships, but that can leave little time to think, plan and pull triggers on bold ideas. Or create a corporate environment where everyone is encouraged to value a sense of adventure.

As the second-generation owner of a family-run business, I haven’t taken enormous risks with the business, for fear of failing and screwing up my dad’s legacy. But I have made a career out of taking deliberate, moderate moves that were clearly out of my comfort zone, yet didn’t put the agency at risk. Like starting an interactive division back in 1999, when few clients knew what an interactive agency was. Buying a competing digital shop to add critical skills and clients to our existing shop, back when valuations of digital shops were irrationally high. (It paid off!) Or implementing a new human-resource initiative that eliminated our vacation policy. At Brownstein Group, our employees take whatever vacation time they need. I believe if you have the right culture, it will attract the right people whom you can trust. Sweaty palms? Sure, but I’m not betting the ranch with decisions like these, and yet they move our agency forward in meaningful ways. We have a loyal, highly motivated team with low turnover — the reward for taking unusual, proactive steps.

A company’s culture dictates how little, or how often, its people stretch the limits. At our shop, it’s even OK to sometimes make a fool of yourself. Walking the hallways, you might see one of our senior-level managers dancing wildly to a video game, trying to score points against his on-screen competitor. Most people in his position would worry that peers would think they’re weird and lose respect for them. Just the opposite happens. By not concerning himself with what people think, and having some playful fun between meetings, this manager endears himself to the staff. It makes him more approachable, and contributes to an atmosphere where risk-taking is valued.

The agency business is not a safe, low-risk one. Never was. It requires leaders who push themselves, and the agencies they run, to go places that are at times unsettling. But that is how you get better. Like skiing down an expert mountain with less-than-expert skills.

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