Episode 144:

I’ve always described our work as being called upon to be creative on demand. Whether an agency employee sits in the creative department, codes apps, builds strategy or works on new business – we are all tasked with being fresh thinkers.

Our clients hire us to ask the right questions. We feel the pressure to provide answers or at the very least, to know the next right question.  It’s incredibly satisfying when a prospect or client says, “I’ve never been asked that before.”

My podcast guest Larry Robertson, encourages his clients – and us – to sit with questions – to not look for quick and easy answers. But to recognize that the real insight rarely comes from the first layer of questions. The paradox is that in times of frenetic change, having the right answers are more important than having the quick answers. Organizationally speaking, it’s a matter of life and death.

Larry Robertson is an innovation and strategy advisor. He is the author of two award-winning books: A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and its Moment in Human Progress, and The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity, honored with a combined 16 awards.

During our conversation, Larry talked about the research he did as he was prepping to write “The Language of Man.” He interviewed recipients of the McArthur “Genius” award to gather their collective wisdom on creativity and staying power in business and life.

Along with being an author, he’s also a columnist for Inc. Magazine and The Creativity Post, and a regular contributor to Fast Company. He also has been featured guest on or in MSNBC, the Chicago Tribune, AdAge, SmartBrief, and in numerous podcasts.

He is a Graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and a former Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

 

 

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • How to help clients recognize their value proposition
  • The five layers of “why” and how it can be a powerful tool for agency
  • How to answer the “so what?” question about what you do and why it’s important
  • The importance of staying curious and open-minded no matter how long your agency has been around
  • Cultivating the Five Habits of the Mind in your agency and weaving it throughout your discovery process
  • What prospects are looking for when picking an agency
  • The two things you can’t do as you implement the Five Habits of the Mind
  • Your role as an agency during the discovery session
  • Larry’s perspective on change and how it affects your agency and clients
  • The three key things you need to do to expand your agency’s brand lifespan to last longer than 15 years
  • The benefits of implementing “play“ as a habit and how it can help you become a better on-demand creative
  • How to encourage better micro-habits as a leader within your agency

The Golden Nuggets:

“It’s not enough to understand your own big ideas. You’ve got to know how to articulate those ideas and their value to a broader audience.” – @catalyst4HP Click To Tweet “The habit of asking questions, just digging deeper into questions is common to all successful entrepreneurs.” – @catalyst4HP Click To Tweet “Figure out whether or not you're living a full and honest story. If not, what are those things you didn't expect to see telling you?” – @catalyst4HP Click To Tweet “Once you recognize what's core and you communicate it to everybody and it’s in front of them every day, you then have something to work with.” – @catalyst4HP Click To Tweet “You cannot be creative in a crisis unless you're in the habit of being playful and open and curious. Play is a habit that should not be ignored.” – @catalyst4HP Click To Tweet “Encouraging the question, ‘what if,’ gives people in your organization permission to explore what might be possible, and even question original assumptions.” – @catalyst4HP Click To Tweet “We say it all the time to our clients, but we often forget that golden rule ourselves - to look at things from the perspective of our clients and see what that tells us.” – @catalyst4HP Click To Tweet

 

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Intro:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build A Better Agency podcast presented by HubSpot. We’ll show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25+ years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build A Better Agency. Really great that you came back or if this is your first episode, thanks for joining us. Hopefully, you’ll find it super valuable. And I believe that you will. I’m excited about today’s guest. Let me tell you a little bit about him, and then we’re going to jump right into the conversation. So my guest today is Larry Robertson. And Larry is an innovation advisor who works, writes and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship.

As the founder of Lighthouse Consulting, for over 25 years, he’s guided entrepreneurial ventures and their leaders through growth and all the way to lasting success. Larry is the author of two award winning books. The first one is The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity, which I believe is his most recent book, and we’ll talk about it. And before that, he wrote A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and its Moment in Human Progress. So Larry also is a regular columnist for both Inc. Magazine and The Creativity Post, and he and his work have appeared in many places, including best company in adage and productive flourishing and a wide range of podcasts and radio programs. So again, his most recent book, The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity, we’re going to talk about that. But first, Larry, welcome to the show.

Larry Robertson:

Thanks, Drew. It’s really a pleasure to be here.

Drew McLellan:

So give us a little bit of background of how one comes to become an advisor to entrepreneurs, because you probably don’t study that in school.

Larry Robertson:

No, I absolutely did not. And it was a bit of happenstance. After I graduated undergrad, I actually went to Manhattan and I worked for J.P. Morgan primarily in commercial banking. I did some other things for them. Having grown up in a smaller town in the American Southwest, I liked New York, but I didn’t always enjoy living there. So when I had a chance to hop on a plane and go back to San Francisco, where I’d gone to school in that area, I also did some interviewing. And the job that I ended up taking there was with a firm that helped entrepreneurs, helped fund entrepreneurs and then also traded their stocks. This was at the very beginnings of the NASDAQ when it was really a new exchange.

So it was a little bit of happenstance that I fell into that. But even though I was working for what was effectively an investment bank, a venture capital firm at the time, most of my time was spent with those entrepreneurs before they ever hired us, ever paid us a single dollar, helping them to not just fully understand their big ideas. But how to articulate those ideas and what they meant, what the value was to a broader audience, meaning beyond their startup team. How do you go out and tell customers and investors and others who you are and why you should even matter to them? So I developed such a passion for that, that everything else I’ve done since has grown out of what really was a subset of what I was doing when I was in venture capital.

Drew McLellan:

So as I’m listening to you talk, I’m thinking about how many agencies ironically, given what we do for a living, really struggle with, A, differentiating themselves from all the other agencies out there, and B, talking about their value in a way that is different than here’s the stuff that we make.

Larry Robertson:

Sure.

Drew McLellan:

So how did you help those startups, because whether you’re a startup or you’ve been around it for 20 years, I think sometimes the struggles continue to be the same, how did you help those folks recognize from a point of view other than their own, what their value actually was and what their value proposition was?

Larry Robertson:

Yeah. Well, it’s really interesting. So a lot of the companies that I worked with were technology companies. And so when I would come into those companies, there was a good chance that even though I knew a lot about different modes of technology, I didn’t know what they did. And I didn’t come in trying to be an expert in that. So the very first thing that I would do is to spend time with them to say, you are an expert in what you do. And I’m not. How can I understand that in as few words as possible? So the very first thing was saying, it’s not so much whether or not you understand what you do, it’s Can you make other people understand that?

And that led to the second thing that We would spend a lot of time on when I would work with these not even clients but prospective clients. And that was, why should they care? Whoever you’re talking to, whatever it is you do, however you describe it, why is it meaningful to them? And what’s interesting is that the initial answers, and I’m sure you’ve experienced this, that your client gives you are typically in a form that’s really talking about them, the client. This is why I think this is so neat, nobody else is doing this. This is why we’re better in all the tactical ways or whatever. And I would say, no, no, no. Dig a layer below that. Why should I care?

There’s this old management technique that was developed by Toyota decades ago, and it’s called the five layers of why. I don’t I don’t know if you’re familiar with it. But basically, this is what I would do with my clients and push them through those layers of why. So to ask, well, why should people care? Whatever the answer is, you dig one layer deeper by saying, well, why does that matter? And why does that matter? And what Toyota figured out was that by the time you get to the fifth level, you’re probably down to what’s core and essential, and most importantly, relatable. And so it’s those two modes. Let’s get down to the simple version of what you do and let’s talk about why anybody else should care, that frankly, were probably the most valuable things that I did for my clients.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, it’s funny. I teach the Toyota thing in the AE Bootcamps, but I call it the toddler why. Because if anyone’s ever had a toddler, they know that kid says the sky is blue. What color is the sky? And you say blue. They go, why? About five layers in you’re like, seriously? It’s the same thing. Yeah.

Larry Robertson:

It’s absolutely the same thing. It’s funny you say that, because in my first book, A Deliberate Pause, I tell a story about my daughter, who was about four or five years old at the time, and her constant asking why. And what was most interesting is that I didn’t just do it as a fun, entertaining thing. That characteristic, that habit of thinking that way and asking that way was key and a pattern across the most successful entrepreneurs. Not just when they started, but it’s an ongoing habitual thing that they did. And again, not just as individual leaders or founders of their businesses, but something that they instilled culturally, which is a really interesting thing.

So take a founder of an agency, in some ways, they’re like a founder anywhere else. Meaning, to get started is a high hill to climb. And you get a lot of pushback as you do that. As you make your way up that hill, as you become more successful, even though you were open minded enough to try to start something new in the beginning, you become closed, and you become, this isn’t quite the right word, but defensive, because you want to defend what you’ve built. And too often, as founders and leaders, we do that even with the people who are immediately around us and are making us successful. So this whole idea of opening up those layers of why to everyone in your organization, making it a cultural habit is a really powerful tool. It’s scary sometimes, but a really powerful tool.

Drew McLellan:

And a great way to something to bake into internal meetings to when you’re talking about innovating, or changing, or new products or services you can offer. But also, as I was listening to you, I’m thinking, this is a technique that we should also be using with our clients because they too struggled to articulate how they’re different. And one of the things that successful agencies do better than most is they ask great questions. So helping a client sort of dig deeper around the whys, I think is a great exercise to bake into your discovery process.

Larry Robertson:

Yeah. And one of the things I really appreciate about your podcast is that you’ve always get to two things in conversations. One is a context and perspective to say, where does all this fit in? So if I’m going to start doing something like this with my clients, I use the word why. Why are we doing that? Why is it going to fit in? But the second thing you do so well is you get to things that are really tangible and actionable. So let’s do that right now. If I was going to come in as an agency owner, or leader, or the team and sit down with my clients and try to use more questions and try to orient towards why, there’s a really wonderful technique called the five habits of the mind that is a great way to get there. And so it was developed by this education reformer, her name is Deborah Meier, she’s a MacArthur Fellow winner, which is a fellowship for creativity.

Here’s how it goes. Basically, what she teaches her teams to do internally and then externally when they’re working with partner or client is to ask first, how do we know what we know? So think about in working with a client, sometimes the client, as I was describing my own, doesn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about why they know what they know, or whether or not it’s still relevant. And pretty much everything-

Drew McLellan:

Or if it’s just an assumption they’ve made.

Larry Robertson:

Correct. Or if it’s an expired assumption. So it was relevant once, but maybe it’s less relevant now. Or maybe there are more things that that affect it. So this question of, how do we know what we know, or how do I know what I know is a way of opening back up those assumptions. Just to make sure that they still apply, and if they don’t, to catch them early enough to say, well, what else do we need to learn here? And that leads to the second question, which is, is there a pattern? So if we see something that we think is important or we see something we think is problematic, it could be an aberration, it could be a one off thing. But if there’s a pattern of it, it probably points to either an opportunity or a need to change.

And that’s what leads to this third question or third habit of the mind, and that’s some form of the question, what if? What if we did this? Think about sitting down with that client, and you’re talking about a new idea. But it also works when you’re trying to address a challenge or a problem that they’re facing. What if we did this? And it invites a collective thinking about what we might do about this based on how we know what we know and this pattern that we’ve seen.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and it also gives permission to not go with the answer you think is right, because what if implies, this might not be right. So it gives you permission to think probably broader and bigger, and maybe in a more absurd or unexpected direction without you being wrong. Because it’s not a this is the answer. Right?

Larry Robertson:

Absolutely. And so there’s a fear that people have about being broad like that, going outside their borders, as I like to think about it. However, if you started with those first two questions, and notice that each habit of the mind is a question. How do we know what we know? And is there a pattern? You’ve given a common ground to everybody. So once you start exploring the what ifs, people don’t feel like they’re dangling off the side of a cliff as they explore these new ideas.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Yeah.

Larry Robertson:

And then the last two habits or questions are, even once you’ve come up with a great what if, Deborah always asked the question, is there another way of looking at it? So this is really the question of saying, okay, we easily fall in love with our ideas. Or we easily fall in love with the convenient and sometimes they’re the same thing. So is there another way of looking at it is a way of really testing whatever’s come out of that, what if process. And then the last habit and the last question is really the most important. This is what drives towards value, as we talked about earlier, and the bottom line. The last question is, who cares? Because we could sit in a room with our clients and come up with the world’s greatest solution or campaign or whatever it might be. But if we’re the only ones to care, it really doesn’t have a lot of value or a lot of impact.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Well, that’s a great … For everybody listening, think about your own discovery process, because every agency has one. You might call it something different. But that’s what we have. Client intake time, whatever you want to call it. Some of you have cute acronyms, whatever. But think about how would you weave those questions, and more importantly than the question of thought process in those questions into that discovery session. Because again, I think a lot of times, the place that we get caught up, the place where that we get treated like we are offering a commodity is when we start making this stuff. And I’m not saying that you don’t make good stuff, because I’m sure you do. But everybody makes stuff.

My observation of agencies are the ones who rush through the discovery process, the ones who quickly get to the doing rather than really slowing down and asking the questions, those are the ones who are treated like a vendor. But the agencies that really have a well thought out discovery process that is, part of it is theater, part of it is creating the experience and it might be the cool conference room, it might be the puzzles you have on the desk, whatever your stick is. But by putting thoughtful questions like that, that your clients or prospects are not used to answering. Many, many times when I talk to clients, what they say is, the reason they pick the agency that they did was because the agency is different or better questions.

And so Larry just served up a great methodology for really walking someone through a discovery process in a way that feels very fresh and different and very focused, and that there’s nothing boilerplate about it. And I can’t imagine the kind of conversations that come out of that series of questions.

Larry Robertson:

What you said is so dead on, and I will connect it to one other element that I learned from Deborah. Just as a little bit of background, I interviewed Deborah, along with nearly 70 other MacArthur Fellows for my most recent book, The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity. So we had this wide ranging conversation, and we did talk about the five habits, which we’ve just described. And the five habits, some people do know about these are there other versions of it, as you said, everybody can have their own form of inquiry and gathering data. But one of the most interesting things that Deborah shared with me is that oftentimes people pick up her version of the five habits of the mind. And they use it once or a couple of times, but then they do two things that kill it.

One is that they are quick to try to get to an answer to these questions, because we’re all answer-oriented. So the faster you move towards saying this is the answer, the less likely you are to, one, gathered the information you really need, or two, in the way you phrased it, to come across to your client as somebody who is actually distinct, interested in them, and likely to provide a truly different answer and not just the answer. And the second thing she said to me is that even after those answers come, people start to reduce the five habits to statements.

Drew McLellan:

Instead of questions.

Larry Robertson:

Right. Instead of leaving them as questions. So instead of saying, how do we know what we know, we say, well, this is what we know about the client. Is there a pattern is, we just say, the pattern is X.

Drew McLellan:

So we’re prescribing rather than discovering.

Larry Robertson:

Exactly, exactly. So the technique of the five habits of the mind is to make this a habit of constantly exploring out probing. Not endlessly, not without getting results, but not also to fall in love with a single answer for all time.

Drew McLellan:

I think that one of the challenges that we have is that we’re so used to being the people that have to have the answers that there’s great discomfort in the not knowing. And those questions force you to stay in the unknown for longer than people are comfortable. And so part of it is sort of developing the muscle, and probably helping clients because clients are going to want to rush to the answer, too.

So part of our role in those discovery sessions has to be, and maybe you acknowledge it right up front, this is going to be uncomfortable, it’s going to feel like we don’t know what we’re doing for a while. But this is the way we get to knowing that what we’re doing is the right thing to do, so let’s just stay in the discomfort together. You probably have to set that up that way. But as agency people, we’re so used to being the answer people. We too, would have to develop that muscle of being settled and comfortable in the discomfort.

Larry Robertson:

Yeah, that is an excellent point. If you aren’t comfortable in that process and going through that that kind of discussion, it’s going to be really tough to either make your client comfortable with it, or even to appear that you’re comfortable with it. So it is a habit and it is something that takes practice. Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. On the agency side of my world, we’ve done a ton of brand work over the last 25 years. And we have developed this branding process that is very collaborative with clients. And even though I’ve done it hundreds of times, there’s a point in the afternoon of the day, every time where I’m in my head thinking, oh, my God, we are not going to land anywhere. Every time it feels like I’ve jumped out of a plane without my parachute. I have to sort of talk myself down off the ledge and just go, you know what, you guys always get there, just stay patient, trust the process. I’m 55 years old, and I’ve been doing this a long time, and even I still get uncomfortable in the unknowing. So I get it, but it really does result in the best work.

Larry Robertson:

Yeah. This is interesting too, just especially to emphasize that last phrase. So when I think about doing something so that the result is the best work, I think about the best work in two ways. One, this goes to being in the habit of feeling like you need to come up with the answer. Part of that is because that’s why you’re hired, you’re hired to help them come up with the answer. However, as a business person, you don’t want to just supply a single answer in a single situation. In theory, you want to develop a relationship.

I mean, think of all the effort and energy you put into any particular project or into arriving at any particular answer whenever it comes. You we want to build on that. Whether it’s an ongoing, steady relationship, or it’s just a client that wants to work with you again in the future. And really, what causes them to buy into the relationship, not to just buy that particular answer, is your methodology, is your approach, is your comfort with the uncomfortable and your effectiveness as a guide in making them comfortable too. The reason they’re coming to you for the answer is they are uncomfortable. If they had the answer, they don’t need you. They need something more than that answer. They need you to be a really reliable, effective and courageous guide.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I think your point is really spot on, which is, a lot of our job at that stage is reassuring them that we will get to the right place. But we have to go on this journey together, A, so we get to the right place, but B, so that we all understand how we got there. I think some agencies shortcut that and tell their clients the answer. And then the client has a hard time selling it internally, or up the food chain, or whatever it is because they don’t really understand the process or the thinking behind how we got exactly to where we’re at.

When you take them on the journey with you, then they can articulate that so much better, and they own it at a different level. So it’s also a way of getting clients not to second-guess you when you’re halfway down the field and all of a sudden, they’re going wait, wait, I talked to the CEO, and he thinks this or she thinks that. They’re able to keep you on path because they participated in to making the game plan.

Larry Robertson:

Yeah. It’s such a wonderful point, I’ll even add an extension to that. Even when you come up with the great answer, the great idea, the great phrasing, the great whatever, what happens when something changes? If that client doesn’t understand the process, and if they’re not able to participate in it, maybe even extend it when they interact with other people, then if one of the assumptions changes, they’re in a more difficult place to know how to rebound, how to pivot, whatever word you want to use to make some kind of an adaptation, so that everything you gave them so far is still valuable, even if you’re going to rearrange how the pieces of the puzzle look.

Whether you’re an agency owner, or frankly, whatever sector you’re in, whatever kind of organization you’re leading and trying to deliver in, change is so different today than it has ever been before. That teaching this kind of adaptability to yourself and to your team, but then also to your clients is absolutely critical for getting across that ultimate finish line of we’ve delivered this project, we got the value out of it, they’ve got the returns. So I think that process has everything to do with adaptability as well. And I think adaptability is just, you can’t live without it these days.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So I know that you have some ideas around how we think about change and how we should think about change. So I want to get to that. But first, let’s take a quick break. One of my favorite parts of AMI are our live workshops. I love to teach, I love to spend two days immersed in a topic with either agency leaders, agency owners, or AEs in our AE Bootcamps. But most of all, I love sharing what I’ve learned from other agencies, from 30 years in the business and all the best practices that we teach. If you have some interest in those workshops, they range from everything from money matters, which is all about your financial health of your agency, to best management practices of agency owners, to new business, to AE Bootcamps and a plethora of other topics. Go check out the list and the schedule at agencymanagementinstitute.com/livetraining. Okay. let’s get back to the show.

Okay, everybody, I am back with Larry Robertson. And if you stuck with us through the brief break, you know that we are about to talk about change. So I know that you talk about that many entrepreneurs think about change as being sort of episodic or periodic. You have a different perspective on that. Talk to us through your thinking on that.

Larry Robertson:

Sure. So what’s interesting, I think if you think about just about anything, let’s put ourselves back in the 20th century. And if you think about any management technique, any model, any prognosticating about where the market was going, change was always in there.

Drew McLellan:

Sure.

Larry Robertson:

But the kind of change that would be projected typically had two characteristics. One is oftentimes it didn’t reach you directly. So there was a threat that it might or could someday, but it was kind of out there at a distance. So something that happened in your market, but not directly in your company, we could kind of see some distance on it. Or something that happened in a completely different market, we just assumed it would never reach our shores. Or a pissed off customer and the kind of change they were trying to promote. In the 20th century, we didn’t worry about that too much. I mean, it’s not that we were indifferent. But really, what were they going to do?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, write a letter?

Larry Robertson:

That environment has changed so dramatically. The second part that has changed is that whatever the change was, we usually had some time to think about it, some time to decide whether to engage it. And sometimes even to make the choice as to whether or not to do that, because it might not reach our shores or for a long time. And then when we did choose to engage it, we engaged it with, even if it was subconscious, with a mindset that said, as soon as I get through this change, I will arrive at a new status quo, and everything will be good to go, and I can keep walking forward the way that I’ve just redesigned to walk forward. That’s no longer the case.

Change comes from every zone, it can be just as powerful from the individual person who talks about your agency on social media, as it can be a market that feels completely unrelated, but has a ripple effect back to us. And it happens so fast and so frequently that the CEO of Walmart said in a Harvard Business Review interview recently, he said, “We used to think about change is something that we had to approach yearly or even quarterly.” He said, “Now it’s weekly.” And I joke with other CEOs that it’s hourly. And he didn’t mean little things here and there, he meant change that could actually upend the business. So all of that sounds incredibly frightening or threatening. But one, it is the state of things today. And two, it’s actually a huge opportunity. It’s an opportunity to learn to be adaptable.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Well, and I think, given what we … It’s interesting, when we talk to clients about crisis communications, to give them the example and a lot of you listening are too young to remember this, so look for it on the Google. But the Tylenol scare back when I was young, the parent company of Tylenol took seven days to even acknowledge that someone had gotten sick or died from a tainted bottle of Tylenol. Seven days. The SeaWorld incident where the whale killed the trainer, that video of her death, the video of her death was on YouTube five minutes after she died. Right there is the demonstration of exactly what you’re talking about. We no longer have the luxury of not being able to adapt on the fly because the world is forcing us to be adaptable. And so I’m curious, how do you teach entrepreneurs to embrace that and to be good at it? Because we have to get good at it.

Larry Robertson:

Well, I love your example because it really, it draws this very stark contrast about then and now. I still find that the entrepreneurs I work with say, well, yes, I understand that happens, but it won’t happen to me. Right. And what I often say to them is, first of all, the Small Business Administration stats on entrepreneurship had been the same every year for 30 years that 9 out of 10 businesses fail. The attitude of entrepreneurs has generally been the same over that time, too. Yes, but I won’t be that. I won’t be the one [crosstalk 00:29:05] guys. That’s exactly right.

And so one recent research point that I tell my clients about is, in the last century, the average lifespan of a company was 67 years. Okay. So that’s on average. So it means that if you think about a brand in particular, you lived with certain brands for if not your entire life, the majority of your life. And as a company that owns that brand, represents that brand, you could count on being around for a long time riding up and down a lot of highs and lows. Do you know what the average lifespan of a company is today?

Drew McLellan:

No. What?

Larry Robertson:

15 years. Okay. It’s such a dramatic drop, and it should make any owner of a business ask, why is that happening? And more importantly, what are other organizations who are living beyond that average 15 year lifespan, what are they doing that’s allowing them to do that? I’m going to tell you that it really comes down to some very simple things. And one of them is knowing what’s core to your business and operating through that on a regular basis. So that sounds like, well, of course, I know what’s core. My mission statement says that or this is what I say every time I hire a new employee, or what have you.

But the tendency to drift away from what’s core in your day-to-day decision making as your agency goes through the years, is so high that when I sit down with the typical entrepreneur who’s been around even just a handful of years, and I say what is it you do? Why do you do it? And ask those basic questions like that. The answer I get from them, as the owner, as the leader, is different than the answer I get across a team, even as small as 10 to 15 people. So if-

Drew McLellan:

Why do you think that is?

Larry Robertson:

I don’t think that day-to-day decision making his run through that filter of why they exist. It’s just not referenced back to it. It’s almost like choosing not to practice that first habit of the mind of how do we know what we know. It’s an extension of that to say, why do we do what we do? And what we tend to do is we tend to talk about what we do and how we do it in terms of the processes we’ve developed, or the products we’ve developed, or whatever. Those are outputs of why you do what you do, or what it is you do. But going back to that core allows you to say, well, this is what we do, but we could do it any number of ways. There’s a writer, and he’s had a couple of TED Talks, Simon Sinek. So this is his golden circle. He’s saying instead of driving from what, we should drive from why and extend out to how and what.

Drew McLellan:

What that’s really talking about, I think, is that you stay in touch with … First of all, a lot of agencies don’t have the mission, vision thing figured out. And they don’t have it articulated in a way that if I walked down the hallway and said, hey, why do you guys exist? I would always get the same answer.

Larry Robertson:

Sure.

Drew McLellan:

First of all, the owner may know it, but may not have communicated it. Or what I find a lot of agency owners, they’ll go, I told them that three years ago in a retreat. I’m like, how many times have you told your kid to brush their teeth? I’m not equating employees to children. I’m just saying that, as human beings, we need reinforcement over and over, and over again.

Larry Robertson:

Correct.

Drew McLellan:

So number one, if the owner has identified what’s sort of the mission vision is, and really has articulated why they exist. They may not have shared it with the staff, or they don’t share it often enough. Or it’s in the language that doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s not tangible, right?

Larry Robertson:

Yep.

Drew McLellan:

Or they have never gone through the exercise, which is I think the part you’re talking about, which is in meetings saying, does this get us closer to where we’re headed or not? And if it doesn’t get us closer than why are we doing it, is it that we have to do this so that we can get closer with the next move? Because if we’re not thinking about that, then we’re reacting in the moment. And a lot of times we’re reacting to a client’s panic or crisis without really thinking about the longer term business implications of it.

Larry Robertson:

Yeah. Well, think about what you just said here, because I think this is helpful to an agency owner taking what we’re talking about and actually doing something with it. Okay. The first thing is, we don’t always communicate as well as we credit ourselves for. The second thing is, people have short term memories. So they tend to have that because immediate pressures tend to kill their memories of things that have a longer range to them. And the third thing you’re really saying is you can’t just communicate these things, you can’t even just communicate them clearly. You have to play with them, you have to play with their use.

So let me give you a very tangible example of a company that realizes we all have these limitations, and realizes that this has got to become something that is part of your everyday, and that’s Airbnb. So Airbnb has reduced what they’re all about to a single page, and they call it The Sheet. And they don’t share with the outside world what is on that one page. However, in their inner sanctum conference room, they have taken the sheet and they’ve broken down the key components of it. I can’t even remember … Less than a dozen. And they actually have posted them on the wall around the conference rooms so that each component is there.

So that every time they sit down and discuss a new idea, or a new threat to their business, or a new hire, or whatever it is, those things are not only visually there, but they’re in the practice of referring to them to say, why are we taking on this new client? Why do we want to go after them? How does it help us to accomplish those things that are so fundamental to us? Pixar does the same thing. They have three simple principles that they operate on. And if you read those principles about … They include things like everybody needs to be able to have a voice in this organization. It sounds like throwaway mission statements stuff.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Larry Robertson:

But when you put it out there on a daily basis, and then you play with it, it actually helps to modify and even augment how you do even the most basic thing to just execute business every day. So it’s that combination of communicating, communicating it clearly, having it in front of you every day, and most importantly, I think, playing with it within the context of your actual business.

Drew McLellan:

It’s interesting that you use the word play, because one of the things that I get asked all the time, and I’m curious about your thoughts about it is, people are exhausted at the idea that they have to be creative on demand. And being creative on demand is not just the sort of bailiwick of the creative department. I don’t necessarily mean with words and pictures, I mean, that we have to be creative thinkers. So whether it’s the account service team or the admin team, every day agencies are being asked, and I suspect it goes outside of agencies, but that’s my world. Every day agencies are being asked to be creative on demand.

I started my career as a writer in agencies. And so I get that there were some days or some hours of the day when I’m not firing on all pistons at 7:00 a.m. And if I have something to do and I have to write well at that hour, I have to be able to find a well somewhere and dig deep to be creative on demand.

Larry Robertson:

Sure.

Drew McLellan:

What I find interesting, though, is that, even though that’s a key component to agencies, one of the things that agencies aren’t always great at is this whole idea of play. So I’m curious about your thoughts about that, and how businesses, in this case agency centric, how businesses should be thinking about play and how it should be part of their day and their culture? And what does it look like? When I say play, what does that look like inside an organization?

Larry Robertson:

Sure. Let me answer that by telling you two quick stories, two quick examples of people who’ve touched on the importance of it, but also demonstrated how.

Drew McLellan:

Great.

Larry Robertson:

So as I mentioned before, for The Language of Man, I interviewed 66 MacArthur Fellows. And these interviews would typically be an hour and a half, maybe longer, maybe several interviews. And I would ask them what they thought about creativity. Did they have a definition for it? How did it play out within whatever they did? And these MacArthur Fellows represent every conceivable sector and walk of life. I always point to the C’s. They were choreographers, but they were also chemists, and they were civil rights attorneys, and they were corporate CEOs and so on. And so consistently, across them, I would ask these very directed questions, which is kind of like what you’re asking me. How can agencies think about creativity? And you’re also pointing out, how do they typically think about it?

One question I would ask at the end of all these interviews was, is there anything that I didn’t ask you, or that she thinks is important to a conversation like this that we haven’t talked about? And I was interviewing a gentleman by the name of Pedro Sanchez. And Pedro said, “What do you do for fun?” And my response was a little … I was a little taken aback because he was asking me the question. So I said, “Gosh, well, I like to hike and kayak, and I coach my kids.” And he said, “No. What do you do for fun? That’s the question you didn’t ask me.” And so what Pedro was telling me and I saw it throughout these interviews was that element of play is so crucial to whatever you do. But we tend to look at play like we look at creativity, that I have to do it in an instant. And usually that instant is one of pressure or crisis, or whatever it is.

Drew McLellan:

It doesn’t sound all that playful.

Larry Robertson:

No, it’s not at all. And it’s impossible. You cannot be creative in a crisis unless you are in the habit of being playful and open and things like that. So we tend to over-engineer how we think about how we should be creative or playful, or whatever it is. So that leads to this second story. One of the people I interviewed for my first was Richard Tate, and Richard Tate is not really known to many people. But at Microsoft, he created a dozen different businesses within Microsoft, including Expedia, among others, very successful startups.

Drew McLellan:

Okay, sure.

Larry Robertson:

Yeah, exactly. And then he left Microsoft and created something we look at in hindsight as a very successful business too. He was the co-creator of Cranium , the board game that reignited the board game market. So when I asked Richard about what he did to kind of open up his thoughts to be innovative, to be entrepreneurial, or even to deal with the ups and downs of entrepreneurship, he said, “Well, I go to lunch every day.” And I said, “Well, what does that … You go to lunch every day, don’t we all have lunch?” He said, “No. I actually physically leave the office.” So that’s rule number one.”

Rule number two,” he said, “is when I go, I always go a different way. So if I walked down L Street yesterday, I might walk down M street today if I’m going to the same place. Or I might take exactly the same route. But when I come to that fountain in the park, instead of going left around it, I go right around it.” The first thing he did was to get out of his typical space. So we can all imagine our cubicle, our boardroom, our entire office. The second thing was he sent himself some slightly different direction. Not dramatic, but enough to rejigger his point of view and possibly see something different.

And then the third thing he did was whenever he got to wherever he was going for lunch, he engaged somebody. And so if it was somebody he knew, he engaged them in a different way. He’d ask them a question they wouldn’t expect. Or if he saw no one that he knew, he would engage somebody, a stranger that he typically would not. Like the guy in front of him at the deli line, instead of leaving the conversation as, this line is sure longer than normal today, he would engage him in an ongoing series of questions. So the point was that when he came back to his office, he didn’t always have this big creative idea. But everything looked different to him even in the slightest of ways.

So the answer to your question in my mind is, this is so critically important. But it comes from these little habits of opening ourselves up to the possibility and going across the edges of our borders. Not in a moon leap way, but in a putting your toe outside the boundaries of what you know and how you do things, and encouraging others to do it along with you. That is ultimately what makes agencies and leaders and any business or any person in an organization more creative, is being in the habit of doing that. Everything else flows from that. So it sounds super simplistic and it sounds like it doesn’t offer you an automatic guarantee, which it does not. But the habit of it is exactly what leads to people being more creative, innovative, open and adaptable, all the things we’ve been talking about.

Drew McLellan:

So if you’re the leader of an organization, how do you teach that to your team? I’m thinking about agencies are all under this pressure about billable hours, and everyone’s got to be more billable. We send these messages to our staff that basically says, try to go to the bathroom on your own time, because you got to be billable. Right?

Larry Robertson:

Right.

Drew McLellan:

A, how do we teach our people to do what you just described? And B, how do we change the culture? Because, of course, we need people to be billable, and we need to have the business be profitable, otherwise, we will be one of the 9 out of 10 that doesn’t survive. So I’m not suggesting that we should act like a daycare center and play all day. But how do we find the balance in that? And as a leader, how do we encourage that sort of micro habit? Because that’s really what you’re describing.

Larry Robertson:

Sure.

Drew McLellan:

And then how do you amplify it inside the shop so that it’s a shared experience?

Larry Robertson:

Yeah. They’re great questions. To answer it, one of the things you talked about is the day-to-day pressure. That everybody in an agency feels to, to deliver to make something happen right now, to just do the things that need to get done to keep the ship afloat. There was a very interesting interview you did not too long ago with … I’m going to work on his last name here, too, but Sam Mallikarjunan?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, he’s got a heck of a name. Yep. Sam, the guy from HubSpot.

Larry Robertson:

Exactly, exactly. I think he said he was going to legally change his name to that.

Drew McLellan:

I’m telling you.

Larry Robertson:

One of the things Sam pointed out, which I loved, is that we struggle every day with this idea of we need to sell, so much so that we’re often willing to take the client that in the end is going to be a loss for us. Not necessarily a financial loss, like direct financial loss, but it may be because they don’t fit our profile, so we have to work harder to do something that appeals to them. Or they are such a low ticket client for us that even if we get them, we pay for it in all the things they expect, even though they’re a low ticket client of ours. To me, that’s a reality to check to say, whatever pressure you’re facing now, does it upend why you exist as a business in the first place? Does it up and what’s core to making you distinct in what you give your client?

So we have a chance every day to ask that question, are we fundamentally acting in a way that runs counter to what’s core to us? But moving from that, how do you start to do this? It’s what we talked about before. Once you recognize what’s core, and you communicate it to everybody, and you communicate it on a regular basis, or it’s in front of them every day, you then have something to work with. If you haven’t done that, it’s really hard to know how to remedy to this, or how to encourage it. But once that’s out there, which you can be reminded of every day, if you play through those things that are core, if you actually use them, it is absolutely the best way to gradually build towards what we’re talking about, to gradually build towards adeptness in how you adapt individually and as a culture. It’s really just as simple as that.

So I’ll give you a reference point. We think of people who’ve had big ideas. And we always think of big, creative ideas backwards. We look at whatever the output was at the end. So call it Apple and Steve Jobs and the first iPod or the first iPhone. We don’t think about that process that led up to that creation, which is always an accumulation of smaller steps and smaller ideas that not only add to one another, they replace one another, they augment one another until at the end, it only looks like a big idea. So it’s going back to these very basic things about your habits every day, excuse me, and what your priorities are for what you’re doing. And then playing with what’s most fundamental to you and making that work within that day to day context. It’s really that simple.

Drew McLellan:

As I’m listening to you, I’m thinking one of the one of the things I hear a lot from agency employees is, I really want to talk to the agency owner about X, Y, Z, but they’re so busy, I don’t want to bother them. So we also as owners, give these nonverbal cues to our people have, A, don’t bother me, I’m super busy. And B, we don’t look like we’re playing, we don’t look like we’re taking a different route to the one. So again, it’s also about living out loud. Right or wrong, one of the ways that I’ve always chosen to parent is that I have tried to expose my daughter to every mistake I’ve ever made, which as you can imagine, has been many lengthy conversations. By trying to live out loud by saying, …

We used to do this thing when she was little, where we’d have to go around the kitchen table and say something that we’ve learned. And I always tried to come up with a mistake that I made or a bad choice. I would say, you know what I learned today, I learned that Daddy sometimes uses a tone of voice that makes people not feel very good. And then I would tell her the story. I think as bosses, we need to live out loud more often. If you listen to this, and you think I am going to start walking to lunch a different way, I’m going to start engaging people, or any of the things we’ve talked about.

Don’t just do it, talk about it. Talk about it casually, like, oh, my gosh, I listened to this podcast, and I’m going to start doing this because … You know what, I noticed a store on the street that I had no idea was there. Or I noticed a beautiful awning that’s painted a color. Whatever it is, as owners, we cannot do this stuff in a vacuum and we cannot do it sort of hidden under a bushel. We’ve got to live out loud to encourage our people to have the kind of habits we want them to have.

Larry Robertson:

Well, and this is another wonderful opportunity to build on that, you can’t live a myth.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Larry Robertson:

So we tend to want to think about and focus on what’s great in our agency, or what’s great that we say is great about our agency. I’m sitting here listening to you and thinking there are going to be certain leaders who still are not convinced that they need to live out loud. So I referred to earlier the fact that I would often go into clients, still do, and I would ask the leader about why they existed, what they were there to do and what was most important. And then I could go to the nine other people in their organization and get different answers. This is an exercise I’ve had a few of my clients do.

Do that for yourself. Ask everybody in the organization by email, individually, write down those answers to those basic questions. In a sentence, tell me who we are and why we exist. In a sentence, tell me why we stand out from everybody else. I guarantee you that you’re going to get answers back that are going to surprise you. And there are also those indicators that that should get you thinking exactly what you just advised agency owners, are you living out loud. Sometimes you have to see the proof that people aren’t quite getting what you want them to get. Or you start to see the limitations for why they’re not quite delivering what you want them to deliver.

But you can only get that if you’re willing to take that kind of information in. So frankly, that’s an even more basic step than some of the things we talked about before. That’s something that really has, instead of stepping off a cliff, it’s like stepping off a curb, versus say, adopting the five habits of the mind, or trying to reduce everything to a single page. Figure out whether or not you’re living a full and honest story. And if you’re not, what are those things you’re seeing that you didn’t expect to see telling you?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, that’s really a great point. This has been awesome. I want to turn the tables on you a little bit and ask you, what didn’t I ask you that I should have?

Larry Robertson:

I think the one thing we didn’t really talk about that is at least relevant for your listeners to think about is if we were having a conversation, not about the agency, or the leader, or the team members of that agency, but about one of our clients, how do these things we’ve talked about affect them? What are they feeling right now? Are they feeling that very different kind of change that everybody else is feeling? How is it impacting not just their business? But what they’re asking us to do? And are there things that we can take from these lessons that pretty quickly translated to how do we run our own agencies, and use those to better understand and better serve our clients?

So we had a lot of conversation and information here that was very rich, but I think always looking to extend that. Kind of like that fourth habit of the mind, is there another way of looking at it? I would suggest look at it through the eyes of your clients and see what that tells you about, not just them, but you and what you do for them.

Drew McLellan:

Well, I think that gets to the point of we all want to be business advisors or partners to our clients. And so even being able to bring some of this to them and have a conversation around it, can help them think about their own organization and how they might weave this in. Is it something you’re going to sell them? No. But is it a meaningful conversation you can have that demonstrates that you’re thinking about their business like a partner, and that you genuinely want to elevate their business, even when it doesn’t mean there’s more money in your pocket? When we do those things, that’s when we feel like a partner. When everything we do has a, and I can write a scope of work for that at the end of the sentence or the end of the conversation, that doesn’t feel like a partner, that feels like a vendor with their hand in my pocket. Right?

Larry Robertson:

Sure. And it’s funny, as I try more often than not to not use the word partner and think of it in the term trusted advisor. Because it reflects what you’re saying. Sometimes that means you actually are partnering for business and there is a there is a financial exchange. But other times, it just means that that client thinks of you as a go-to person or go-to agency, whether they want to write you a check or not. And it’s always a balance, you don’t want to let that get out of control. But it’s that trust that makes them come back. It’s that trust that makes them honest about what they want. Frankly, it’s that trust that makes them more attracted to what you have to offer. So that trusted advisor role, I think is a really important thing to go to.

Drew McLellan:

I think you know you’ve gotten there when clients are calling or texting you and saying, I was up all night worried about blah, blah. Or I’ve been thinking about, what do you think? Or just texting you to celebrate a big sale or something. Now you know that you’re in their inner circle of people that they believe have their back and that are willing to really help them work through either a thorny issue or celebrate a success. Again, none of that’s tied directly to the money but it is all tied to the money. Right?

Larry Robertson:

And when it comes time to get to the money, they are so much more receptive to figuring out how to get there with you. And frankly, this kind of goes back to Pedro’s advice, when you’re having that kind of an exchange, that kind of a relationship, trusted kind of relationship, it’s fun. There’s a playfulness to it and it extends far beyond how are we going to meet the bottom line today, this week or this month? But it also impacts that in a hugely positive way.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. This has been awesome.

Larry Robertson:

For me too.

Drew McLellan:

I’m imagining the listeners are fired up after this conversation that they are all walking a different direction to lunch today. I think weaving some of the things that we’ve talked into not only their practices in their own business, but how they interact with clients. So thank you so much for giving us so much to think about and so much really tangible, practical tools that people can weave into their business absolutely tomorrow, if not today.

Larry Robertson:

It’s been my pleasure. And it’s been a great opportunity for me too Drew.

Drew McLellan:

It’s been fun. So Larry, if folks want to track you down, if they want to learn more about your consulting work, and your books and all of that, what’s the best way for them to find you?

Larry Robertson:

Sure. So the simplest place to get to all of that is what I think of as my hub website, larryrobertson.me, M-E. That’s the best place to go. If you want to just put your toe in the water, I have a column, as you mentioned, for Inc. Magazine. And these are nice, short pieces that get to very actionable steps. So if you just search Larry Robertson Inc. Magazine, there are more than a dozen columns there right now that you can take a look at. And then if you’re interested in the most recent book, Language of Man, languageofman.com is the way to go. But you’ll find all of that through larryrobertson.me.

Drew McLellan:

Awesome. Thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

Larry Robertson:

My pleasure.

Drew McLellan:

All right, guys, this wraps up another episode. Hey, I wanted to remind you that remember, a lot of our guests are like Larry, they’ve written books, or they’ve got courses, or whatever, and they’re super generous. You can hear that in the interview, but they’re even generous beyond the interview. So they send us their books and their stuff and allow us to give them away. So for you to be in the drawing for that, we give something away every week. We’re giving away AMI courses, we’re giving away books, we’re giving away other people’s courses, workshops, things like that, you need to go to agencymanagementinstitute.com/podcastgiveaway. So again, agencymanagementinstitute.com/podcast giveaway.

If you’ve already signed up, you don’t have to do it every week, you’re in the running. You only need to do it once. But it’s free stuff. So really take the five minutes. You know that our guests are awesome and super smart, so why wouldn’t you want more of their smarts for free. So make sure you do that. In the meantime, also, always grateful for the emails and the notes that you send, the Facebook messages that you leave on our Facebook page. So keep that communication coming. I love that. It helps me decide who I should have as guests. Ratings and reviews, I read all of them. So there’s lots of ways to communicate with us. Obviously, you know that you can reach me at [email protected] I’m always there, so you can find me there.

In the meantime, this wraps up another episode, I will be back next week with another guest to help you build the agency that you’ve always wanted to build. So thanks for staying with us, and I’ll talk to you next week. That wraps up another episode of Build A Better Agency. Hopefully, you found it incredibly helpful and inspiring and that you are ready to go out and do some great things. I also want to talk to you about another tool that we’ve built that I would love to offer you. So as you’ve probably heard me preach, I believe a lot of agencies chase after the wrong new business prospects. And I think we do that because we have not taken the time to clearly define who our sweet spot clients should be. And the way you do that is by looking at your current clients and then developing out who your prospects should be based on your best current clients.

So we put together a Sweet Spot Client Filter, say that five times fast, that I would love for you to take advantage of and for you to use inside your shop to figure out exactly who you should be targeting for new business. To get access to that free tool, all you need to do is text AMI for Agency Management Institute, as you might imagine, AMI. Text that to 38470. Again, text AMI to 38470 and we will get the Sweet Spot Client Filter out to you right away. Thanks again for listening. If I can be helpful, you can find me as always at [email protected] Otherwise, I will touch base with you next week with another great episode. Talk to you soon.

Outro:

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