Five Tips for Surviving Change

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23 months ago I took on the mantle of Director of Invention at a hallowed ad agency here in LA. I assumed a title no one had ever heard of before, took what was my first gig inside an ad agency proper, and set about (with considerable help) to re-engineer a perfectly good, highly successful factory to produce an entirely new kind of output – marketing as product.

Since, rightly or wrongly, I’ve been asked by clients and outsiders how to manifest change within a big organization. My first reaction is that change is innate to any organization that continues to survive (because our job as managers, like our job as a species, is to co-evolve with our environment) – so no single person manifests change, change is something that happens to you whether you’re prepared or not. My job is nothing as profound as manifesting change. My job is to simply help the organization survive change – and for advertising that means surviving a splintering of attention, a more active consumer, more involved clients, the technological means to actively ignore messaging, negative public perception, and increased demand for talent, among a host of other factors. After 23 months, I still feel ignorant, but I cling to the following as a man thrown overboard is wont to do.

invest in people who can create demand for their own services and can weather the storm.

Change is a numbers game. Some will embrace its nature, some will resist it, but most are waiting for it to be worth their effort. I’ve been fortunate to stumble across a small brilliant team that have been invaluable to me in my efforts and its not only because they are far smarter than I am (which they are) – they have created internal demand for their services and have shown a remarkable persistence in the face of what some days can only be described as organ rejection. They create a welcoming face and calm demeanor for everyone else, which makes them the best proselytizers for our little church of change.

focus on building the new thing not on destroying the old thing.

When I took the gig, I wanted to burn the building down. Well, not really, but if there were a room with our travel booking and time tracking systems in it, I would have at least set fire to that room. Going from David to Goliath, everything about how we worked seemed inefficient. In a startup, you’re trying to maximize the output of every single square inch of resources. In a big company, you’re trying to intermingle a host of specialists and silos (who are separated by geography and culture) in order to reduce manufacturing errors. Almost by design this is inefficient, but the only recourse is some kind of draconian process (which creative firms tend to reject). Ultimately, my opinions meant very little until I had my own culture and process in place and had demonstrated (over and over) its success. No one is going to help you dismantle the business that’s paying for their mortgage or their kids’ college education – but they will help you build something that they believe can offer them even more advantages.

hate to lose but don’t count the losses.

When I started this job, I literally marked a calendar with ‘W’s and ‘L’s (wins and losses) based on whether or not I felt I had made headway that day. This turned out to be incredibly de-motivational. Learn from your losses, just don’t carry them too far. Related, don’t draw too big of a conclusion from any single loss (hindsight is rarely 20/20).

don’t let the bastards get you down.

Change is frightening for most and threatening for some. If you wear the change agent target on your back you’re going to be the object of some hate and fear. It sucks. A lot. And it rarely comes from a personal place, but it sure feels personal. You’ll tell yourself that trying to please everyone is the only sure-fire way to fail, but no one wants to be actively disliked. Within my first week on the job, I was pulled into an EVP’s office and chewed out for an organizational decision of which I had absolutely no role in. I was just the most convenient target at the time. Every member of my team has had a similar experience during their tenure. It’s been inevitable. My best advice is to remember what success is (it isn’t pleasing the un-pleasable) and …

finally, have a life outside of work.

I’m a person driven by purpose and I seek out accomplishment. I want my efforts to mean something and to produce something meaningful. And I tend to hire a like-minded sort. The challenge is remembering to diversify your efforts outside of your work life. With this job and its lofty purpose, I also was able to rent an apartment on the beach and I’ve worked very hard to be emotionally and physically available to an amazing woman, Britt, and her wonder-dog, Indy. In a big company, working for even bigger clients, there’s so little I have control over and my life outside of work has taught me that control isn’t a path to happiness.

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