Over the course of my career as an advertising and marketing professional, I have witnessed senior management and shop owners large and small grapple with this tricky issue. And there are, of course, an infinite number of circumstances and situations that could potentially influence this decision.
But what it really boils down to is this: Does it make more sense to hire someone from within – someone who perhaps lacks the polish and the full breadth of expertise to fill a new leadership role – OR do you airlift in a hired gun who (at least) on paper brings what you need to fill the void?
I, personally, have never seen the practice of airlifting in leadership work. But I fully recognize that there must be instances out there where airlifting in leadership talent has worked. (Please feel free to share any examples with me in the comments section!!)
So please consider these “TRUTHS” that I have formulated over my career – I hope you find them useful.
And good luck with this tricky question!
TRUTH #1 – Hiring a Free Agent May Mean Losing Your Best People…
If you hire an outsider to fill a leadership position, they better be awesome. Sounds obvious – but let me define ‘awesome’. First, that person better bring serious expertise to fill whatever perceived void exists in agency leadership. If that person is only “nth” degree more experienced than someone internally, your people will see that and naturally conclude that you prefer outsiders to insiders for leadership/promotion. And the perception that existing employees do not have a future at your shop will grow.
So, when you need to hire that six-figure SEO expert as part of the new agency leadership team, first consider the one or two people in-house who built the practice to the point that it required a six-figure salary leader. If you don’t consider them, understand that they will most likely leave – and everyone internally will know exactly why. And, heaven forbid the outside person you bring is not a great fit culturally or fails to surpass the knowledge of those you overlooked, the damage done to your leadership and judgment will be tangible.
This seems like a no-brainer – and I, too, cannot understand how an agency owner or agency leadership could mess up that decision. So, why do management teams fail to understand this basic, common sense premise? Based on my experience, it’s mainly due to the fact that they have no real understanding of what their business does coupled with the fact that they have no idea what their existing people really do. And that is unacceptable. I have seen this happen – for these very reasons – on at least 3 occasions. And the results are not pretty.
TRUTH #2 – Always Look to Promote from Within First
Promoting from within, whenever appropriate, provides lots of short and long-term business advantages.
I have told every employee that I have managed or hired that I would NEVER hire someone from the outside to manage them – and that as our business grows – I would first look to them to fill the leadership void.
I say this to my employees/direct reports because I want them to understand that there is no ceiling to what they can do and where they can go within the shop. I want them to know that they are fully empowered to control their own destiny.
Proudly, I can tell you that I have never had to break this simple promise – in large part because the people I hired or managed ultimately stepped up to take on additional responsibility, to improve their knowledge base and to add more and more value to the team, the client and the business over time.
As a leader, I believe it is our job to create unlimited opportunity for our people. But like everything else in life, it is ultimately up to them to take advantage of it. Some will step up, but most won’t – and that is OK. Everyone in the shop will see that hard work, results and perseverance really do pay off – and the culture will grow and blossom accordingly.
TRUTH #3 – Invest Your Time and Share Your Expertise
When you tell an employee that there is no ceiling to their growth, you must be prepared to help that employee grow – both personally and professionally. It starts with collaborating on a professional development roadmap that identifies areas for improvement, details the support they will need, and defines the benchmarks you’ll use to measure progress/success.
Every ‘job’ offers its employees a ‘Review’. This is NOT what I am talking about. I’m talking about providing 1:1 guidance for those employees that take you up on your offer to genuinely improve their skills, their leadership abilities and the impact on the organization. Those employees that want to be the future leaders of your shop.
I have worked at 10 agencies over the course of my career. I never had an agency owner or direct manager ask me “where I wanted to be at Agency X in 5 or 10 years”. I never had someone offer to help identify a roadmap to get me from Point A to Point B. Which is exactly why have done this for all of my direct reports/hires. Without question, the people that worked for me always outperformed their colleagues in other departments or account groups because they were constantly improving – and constantly recognized and rewarded for that improvement.
TRUTH #4 – Create the Right Culture to Unlock Future Leaders
At The Fiction Tribe, our culture is grounded in employee empowerment and to achieving clearly articulated goals: attracting great clients, doing great work, and growing individually and collectively along with the business.
There are no bureaucrats at The Fiction Tribe. We’re all “doers” – from the owners on down to the new college graduates we hire. Everyone works hard and everyone pulls their weight. Everyone’s role vital for us to collectible achieve our business objectives.
But most importantly… every tribesman and tribeswoman knows exactly what it is required of him or her to move up to that next position or to earn more responsibility. There is no guess work. There are no politics.
Our future is bright because our employees ARE our future leaders.