Episode 258

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Many of us have earned our MBAs in leadership over this past year. As we wrap up 2020, we have some ground to make up and we can’t do that alone. We need to inspire our teammates to rise to the occasion, overcome their personal speed bumps, and build momentum as we drive to the end of the year. Elise Mitchell’s experience running agencies and coaching business owners provides actionable clarity on how we get there.

Elise Mitchell started Mitchell, her PR firm back in the nineties grew it to a seventy-person shop before selling it to Dentsu in 2013. What she loved most about the agency business was building young leaders so she built a leadership training program over the last several years. She works with emerging leaders, business owners, entrepreneurs, agency leaders, and a variety of others.

In this episode of Build a Better Agency, I pick Elise’s brain about how we, as agency leaders, can get the most from our teams during these critical months. Elise’s wide range of expertise can help us inspire and coach our team to a new level of greatness.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here.

Agency Leaders | How to become a more effective agency leader

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • Elise’s transition from agency owner to leadership coach/consultant
  • How agency leaders can better lead their teams through change
  • Why agency owners should acknowledge that it’s okay not to have all the answers
  • Critical mindset shifts that enable us to find opportunities in times of uncertainty
  • How to bring your team through change when everybody is not on board
  • How to empower your employees by helping them discover their own insights
  • How to become a more mindful leader and avoid succumbing to burnout

The Golden Nuggets:

“We don’t like change because we lose control, and we’re afraid we’re going to fail. As agency leaders, we can look at uncertainty and times of change as a window of opportunity to drive change in our business.” @elisemitch Click To Tweet “Not everyone feels the same passion or mindset as the agency owner. The better you can understand how other people’s minds work, the better chance you have to engage them to join you on the journey.” @elisemitch Click To Tweet “The extrinsic rewards of leadership are powerful in their own right. But you also have to seek out the intrinsic rewards that fuel your soul and give you a sense of purpose.” @elisemitch Click To Tweet “Good leaders often stop themselves from telling or directing, and instead they ask an empowering question.” @elisemitch Click To Tweet

“Fundamentally, where we become the most committed, empowered, and accountable is through our own ideas.” @elisemitch Click To Tweet“A centered leader is a leader who is grounded with a clear sense of purpose about why the lead and why they’re doing what they do. They know who they are on the inside and they don’t mind standing in the tension of the moment.” @elisemitch Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Elise Mitchell:

Tools & Resources:

Additional Resources:

Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Agency Management Institute Community where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money and keep more of what you make. The Build a Better Agency Podcast, presented by White Label IQ, is packed with insights on how small to mid sized agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey everybody, Drew McLellan here from Agency Management Institute. Welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency. Thanks for joining us. Thanks for carving out the time to hang out with me. I think you are going to be very glad with this particular episode that you made that time. I’m really excited about this conversation and what we’re all going to learn from my guest. So before I tell you a little bit about her and what we’re going to talk about today, just a reminder that we have a lot of resources on the AMI website for you. We have on demand webinars where you can watch old webinars with your whole team. We have eBooks around financial planning and other things like that. We also have the sweet spot client filter. So head over to the Agency Management Institute website if you have not been there for a while and take full advantage of all of the free resources that we have there. Also want to invite you to check out the book that Stephen Woessner and I wrote called Sell With Authority. The whole premise of the book is that, A, how we sell as agencies has changed. The marketplace has told us it has to change, so that’s number one.

Number two, the old way of selling is harder and less effective than the new way which Stephen and I outline in the book. And three, that if you sell by helping, by serving, by teaching, you can sell faster at a premium price because you’re a subject matter expert. And so I invite you to head over to Amazon or you can go to the AMI website and you can buy it from us direct. But it’s Sell With Authority and I promise you that it will get you thinking about how you sell and better ways to do that. All right?

So with that, let me tell you a little bit about our guest. Our guest today is Elise Mitchell. And Elise is interesting because she started a PR firm back in the ’90s and built it up to be about a 70 person shop and then sold it to a holding company. And then had to ask herself, “Okay, now what? What do I do now that I’ve sold my agency?” And what she’s done over the last several years is she’s built out a coaching and sort of a leadership training business and she specifically works with emerging leaders, entrepreneurs, business owners. Yes, she works with agency folks but she works with non agency folks.

And what I want to talk to her today about is this idea of leadership and how we show up as leaders, particularly given the chaos that our world is in today. And I know she’s going to have some great insights for us as we march ahead with leading our agencies forward. I’ve said many times that a lot of us have earned our MBA in leadership over the last few months. And I think there are ways for us to really bring our team together to do amazing things on the back half of 2020 and as we go into 2021. And I want to pick Elise’s brain and her expertise around how we can best do that. So let’s jump right into the conversation because I can’t wait to start asking her questions.

Elise, without further ado, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Elise Mitchell:

Thanks for having me.

Drew McLellan:

You have a very unique background in that you used to do what we all do and now you’re doing something different. So tell everybody just briefly what your background was and how you ended up doing the work that you’re doing today.

Elise Mitchell:

Well, I had one very simple dream Drew and it was global domination in public relations.

Drew McLellan:

Okay.

Elise Mitchell:

Very simple. Right. Right. This was naïve sort of dream when I got out of college. I loved the field of PR and I wanted to, I thought someday, just be able to do something meaningful in the industry. In the early years of my career I worked at a couple different agencies. I also was in corporate life for a number of years. And then I had the opportunity to start my own firm. And the funny thing about that I remember was, gosh, I’m so ill prepared to start an agency.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Elise Mitchell:

Yeah. I thought you were supposed be old and wise and I was absolutely neither one. I’m a lot older now. Maybe just a tad bit wiser. It was a great opportunity in my life and we just had moved to a new place. My husband always say, drugged me kicking and screaming to a small part of the country. Northwest Arkansas. Fayetteville, Arkansas. Many people know it as the home of Walmart in Bentonville which is just a few miles away. And at the time we moved there, it was 23 years ago, there was not much there. But it turned out to be the best place I could possibly go to start a firm. And I started Mitchell Communications Group. That was in 1995. I always sort of remember. You can tell how old I’m getting now. I sort of lose my years. It was right in the minute ’90s. I had just left corporate life in Memphis and started my firm. The first 10 years it grew kind of slowly. We ended up though getting three of the largest companies that were based there. Walmart became a client, Tyson Foods, and J.B. Hunt. And then in the mid 2000s kind of the whole region really just took off and grew pretty significantly. And we were very fortunate as our agency was able to grow along with the region.

And then at the end of 2012 I sold the firm, which is something I never thought I would do. You should never say never about some things in life. And I sold our agency to Dentsu, which now people know as Dentsu Aegis Networks. One of the big holding company groups. And spent the last seven years since that time … I had a global role with Dentsu doing some M&A work in the PR field for them. And really trying to shepard my firm through the integration process because that’s a big, big shift going from being independent to being a part of a global organization.

Drew McLellan:

And how many employees did you have when you sold?

Elise Mitchell:

At the time we sold we had about 70. At our peak we had about 110. And we had offices. We by that time had expanded offices into New York and Chicago.

Drew McLellan:

Okay.

Elise Mitchell:

Drew, it was an amazing ride. I often say entrepreneurship was the ride of my life. Never could have predicted the ups or the downs. What a great ride.

Drew McLellan:

Someday we’ll have to have you come back and really have to talk about what that process was like. What the selling process and all of the challenges with the integration and all that. Because I’m sure that’s a fascinating story.

Elise Mitchell:

It is. I do get asked about that quite a bit.

Drew McLellan:

I bet.

Elise Mitchell:

And I understand that, yeah. Because you really don’t know when you’re standing on the independent side, what would it be like if I sold? What would be the pros and the cons and how do I make that very important decision?

Drew McLellan:

Right. Yeah. We’ll have to do that another time. That will be fascinating.

Elise Mitchell:

Okay.

Drew McLellan:

But you didn’t just retire. You didn’t just decide to have a cabin in the mountains. You decided to recreate an entire new career. So what are you doing today and what are the breadcrumbs that went from your old world to the new world and tell us a little more about what you’re doing today because that’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Elise Mitchell:

Well, thank you for asking about that. I will tell you, that was one of the most profound experiences for me. Even though entrepreneurship and building the firm, I think wow, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. It really was. But it wasn’t the end. And that was what was so fascinating, is I remember just having an experience of … It was one very specific moment in time I remember when I sort of had this feeling of, I’m not completely satisfied. I’m not completely happy. It isn’t that anything is so necessarily wrong. But I just had this desire to do more but it wasn’t doing the same thing. And so I actually went to my parent company and I told them I said, “I want to start one more company.” I had actually started a second company on the side back in the 2000s doing coaching, training, consulting. I’m sorry, facilitation with a very good friend of mine. And I’m happy to say she’s still a very good friend of mine. But I had that experience. We sold that business because I was really focusing on the agency’s growth. But I thought to myself, I want to go back and do that, which wasn’t public relations but something quite different.

And they actually were very kind. They said, “Well, we don’t mind if you start another company but don’t leave. Just become chairman of Mitchell Communications Group and we’ll rewrite your contract and allow you to start this new business.” Because I told them that’s what I really want to do longterm. So I spent about two years while I was chairman of Mitchell really launching the new business I have today, which is elisemitchell.com. I do executive coaching, leadership development, business consulting. Although, that’s not really the focus of what I do. It’s really leadership. And then I do keynote speaking. And I’ll tell you Drew, it was really a fascinating experience to have that sense of what is it that I really want to do with the rest of my career? And I asked myself two questions that I think were really the most guiding sort of questions that I could have asked to help me figure it out, which one was, what is the happiest day that you can remember in your recent work life? Think about the happiest day. Who was there? What were you doing? What was that experience like? Why were you so drawn to that day?

And then the second question is, what is your greatest contribution to the universe at this stage of your career? Because there’s a lot of things you can do but what should you do? What should you do that’s truly meaningful to other people and to the world in general? And that was when I thought, “I don’t really want to be the leader anymore. I can. I did that for many years. I want to help other leaders be great. What would that look like if I could pour all of the knowledge and the mistakes and lessons learned into other people and help them be great?” And that’s what led me to coaching and leadership development.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Awesome. So one of the things I’m sure that you are helping your clients with today is how do you lead through change? Because certainly we have probably not, for most of anyway, been through a moment of time that has so much change. Not only do we have the pandemic, but now we have the Black Lives Matter and all of the discussions around racial inequality. It just feels like we are in a time, the whole world is in a time where people are scrambling for and demanding, and in some cases forced into change. And a lot of the agency owners I’ve been talking to, they’re feeling uneasy about their ability to lead their team through. So right now what’s happening … We’re recording this on June 16th. What’s happening right now, at least in the states, is a lot of agencies are going back to work. So they have been sequestered at home, working from home for the last three months and many of them are making their way back to work but of course it’s not the same. And I think we all have a sense that whatever is coming next is not the same on a variety of roads.

So talk about how do we lead through change? And part of that is, I think a lot of the owners don’t want it to change. So their own head and heart is like, “I don’t want change, I want what was. And then how do I get over my own self in that and then help my team understand where we’re going, why we’re going there?” What do we need to be equipped to do that is different than just normal run of the mill leadership?

Elise Mitchell:

Well, you’re right. It is such an unusual time. And there are many days I wake up and I think … I always try to start my day as something I’m grateful for. What’s one thing I’m grateful for and I try to start that way. But very quickly my mind goes to, wow, but there’s so many things that are really challenging and yeah, it’s a difficult time. And I think first thing I would say is I think as a leader, give yourself permission to say I don’t have the answers and it’s okay. I remember always having this feeling of dread like oh my goodness, I’m supposed to know. Like I’m the leader. And everybody’s running into my office wringing their hands looking at me going, “Elise, what do we do? We have this problem.” And I would think, “I have no clue what to do at this very moment.” And I remember sort of having a distinct feeling about that which was, “Elise, you’re just not going to always know. How could you know? You’ve not ever been here before.” And so it was giving myself permission to say, it’s okay to say I don’t know but I can’t end the sentence there. I must do whatever it takes to find out.

And it’s a shift in mindset that says I don’t have to have all the answers but I have to have the drive and the desire and the curiosity to go find the answers. And really it’s find the answers for us. Something may work for you but it may not work for my firm. How do I find what’s right and best for us? And of course the best leaders get their team to help them. They don’t just wave a magic wand and be the fairy god mother all the time. They say, “Hey, let’s figure this out together.” So having a bit of a learning mindset I think is a big burden. Or that’s a joy to have because it takes a big burden off your shoulders. I don’t have to have all the answers but I’ve got to go find them. And the second part of that I think is also a mindset shift to say, “I’m going to try to be excited about what’s happening.” Because we don’t like change because we lose control, we’re afraid we’re going to fail, we’re afraid things are not going to go our way, which is why we say I want to go back to what I knew because I-

Drew McLellan:

It was working. Yeah.

Elise Mitchell:

It was working. Or at least I thought it was working because I could see it and touch it and I knew it. Fundamentally what we don’t like is the uncertainty.

Drew McLellan:

Right. And boy are we living in a world of uncertainty right now, right?

Elise Mitchell:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s right. And so our minds are hardwired. We are hardwired to avoid uncertainty. Because when we are certain about our environment, if you’re a friend or a foe, all the things around me, if I have certainty I can feel a little more focused and comfortable where I am because I’m certain of my environment. So that’s where your brain’s kind of hardwired to work. So when things become uncertain you become very defensive because you’re trying to protect yourself. In the days where we were foraging for food all the time we were trying to protect ourselves from predators. Is that a saber toothed tiger jumping out of the bushes or maybe that’s a little rabbit that’s going to become my dinner. I don’t know. So the uncertainty is what makes me anxious and defensive. So I always think that’s how I feel when I’m uncertain about the way thing are around me. I can’t control them. I’m afraid I’m going to fail and I don’t know what’s going to happen. So I’m anxious and I’m defensive and that also then makes me kind of close my mindset down and I don’t see potential. And that’s the key.

If as leaders we can look at uncertainty and times of change to say, there might be some real potential here. Opportunity, a chance to develop new skills, a chance to pivot my firm, a chance to push and press into a new area at an accelerated pace that maybe I couldn’t before. Maybe I have a window of opportunity to drive change in my business because of the uncertain. These are all things that kind of put you in an open and a toward state of mind.

Drew McLellan:

So how do I get in that place and then how do I lead from that place?

Elise Mitchell:

Well, that’s the trick, right? I think some of that comes from having a deeper sense of who you are inside. This kind of place of inner purpose and clarity. And that’s where most leaders are right now. Trying to figure out, why do I do this? A, why am I a leader? It’s really hard. And B, why am I an entrepreneur? Which I think is wearing the two hardest hats. Because that’s really difficult to be both a leader and an owner entrepreneur. You’ve got to fundamentally answer that question to know why you’re in the game in the first place. And go back to that sort of central moment of joy and happiness. Like the question I ask myself, wow, what was I happiest doing and why? What was going on around me that made me sort of come alive at that time? And remind yourself. And chances are, it’s a combination of both intrinsic rewards and extrinsic. So I always say the extrinsic is all good stuff. Money, power, fame, a title, office, whatever you can think of are these external rewards that we feel good about. Those are just rewards. But you’re going to have to find these intrinsic rewards as well that fuel your soul.

I love helping other people. I love solving problems. I love thinking creatively. I love making an impact on people or the world in someway.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I think too, not only are we navigating people through change right now but there’s a lot of resistance and pushback. I was chatting with an agency owner the other day and they said, “Two thirds of my staff is ready to come back to work and can’t wait to be back together and the other third is digging their heels in. They don’t want to come back. They don’t want to leave their house. They’re afraid. I don’t know how to navigate some of the pushback. I don’t know how to help everybody get on the same page, get us where we need to go as an agency.” So when everybody’s not on board, how do we navigate through that?

Elise Mitchell:

I remember the day one of our bright talented digital stars walked into my office and she said, “Elise, can I talk to your for a minute?” “Yeah, sure. Come on in and sit down. What’s on your mind?” She said, “I want to be a nutritionist.” And I said, “What? You are a digital star.” This is back when we were first beginning to embrace digital as an industry. And I thought, “How could you possibly want to leave?” And she said, “I’ve just always had this dream of being a nutritionist.” And I thought, okay. And it was that moment of reckoning, not everybody loves it like I do. Not everybody feels that passion and sense of … Like the owner’s mindset. To be honest Drew, I loved running the business. I know a lot of people don’t, but I thought it was fantastically challenging, interesting. It’s like every day putting the pieces of the puzzle together. HR, tech, operations, talent. It was just all these different pieces. It was a constantly changing situation and I thought it was very engaging and very interesting. So I loved it. I know not everybody does. But it did constantly remind me not everybody loves it like you do. So how do you get your team engaged? How do you draw them in?

A lot of the client agencies that I’m consulting now have this situation where they’re trying to … Some of the people are saying, “Some of my key people are going to say they’re going to go into a cabin in the woods and maybe never come back.” And so part of that is understanding that not everybody works like your brain does. Everybody thinks differently about things. The better you can understand how other people’s mind works, the better you have a chance to engage them and to bring them with you on the journey. So I often talk to people about understanding people’s triggers. So some of our listeners might have heard of the SCARF model. Have you ever heard of that Drew? The SCARF?

Drew McLellan:

I haven’t. Mm-mm (negative).

Elise Mitchell:

When I got my coaching training I attended a program through the NeuroLeadership Institute. And the founder is David Rock. And he was really one of the first sort of neuroscientists that was bringing practical neuroscience research and learnings to leadership. So my training was very much brain based coaching and thinking. It helps you sort of understand what’s going on in your head. And he is the author and creator of this model called the SCARF model. S-C-A-R-F. And I’ll walk you through what they are. This is a really interesting and very, very useful model to understand. The SCARF model is basically the five most common social triggers that people have. Which is based on some further neuroscience research. But SCARF is easy to remember. So S stands for status, which is your relative importance to others. Like desire to be respected. It’s s