The movie Beautiful Boy is not exactly a triumph in storytelling, but it is a careful study in a facet of human nature I’ve been thinking about a lot: our ability to change. The film follows a father as he struggles to understand and treat his son’s addiction. The arc of the film takes him to the eventual realization that he cannot fix his kid, and what he thought was support was actually enablement. He could not change his son, but there were things he needed to do to help the (beautiful) boy change himself.
The boy’s addiction was made all the more anguishing by the fact that the kid was basically a genius. He was a smart (not to mention rich and white) kid with tons of potential, not some early-age burnout destined for a life of obscurity. It may be tasteless to say the prodigious-yet-addicted kid’s life is more valuable than a less gifted junkie, but that’s a better workplace analogy, so bear with me.
If you have spent much time in the working world, you have probably crossed paths with some high-achieving airheads and some brilliant yet less ambitious doofuses. The latter – super talented people who just can’t seem to get it together – are always the most frustrating. You can see their potential, and their failure to live up to it. This is an especially prevalent type at creative agencies like ours. Some mind-blowingly, innately talented people often have trouble communicating with peers, showing up to work, meeting deadlines, reading briefs…yet you know that innate ability they have is worth more than they know.
Sometimes an employee doesn’t work out because they have trouble adapting to the office culture and job requirements. This is never a desirable outcome for anyone, and there is no bulletproof hiring process that can prevent it. So it’s human nature to want to do everything you can to make the person work out. You want to mentor them, coach them, and accommodate their needs to the best of your ability.
In the end, as an employer, I am limited in my ability to get people to adapt to work at my brand development consulting firm. I have been doing marketing consulting for a lifetime, and have owned my own agency for ten years, so I have tried it all and have come to a conclusion:
I can’t change people. But I can bring out the best in them.
The business management world is full of tips about how to optimize a workspace for higher productivity or how to offer perks and bonuses that lower turnover. I have a more general rule of thumb: make people feel like their contributions matter and that they will be personally rewarded for them. Ask them for their opinions, and be open to hearing a perspective that you didn’t see coming. At Rock Candy Media, recruits are told is that their first raise is given when they change my mind. (For more on this, check Why I Hire People to Change My Mind.) It blows my mind how long it takes for them to take it seriously, and to give it a shot, and then it adds joy to my day to see them sitting there after I casually tell them ‘Your idea is better, let’s move on it.” I’ve seen the ‘mouth gape’ and it’s my favorite facial expression.
What gets me is why does it take them so long to do that, when every senior team member tells them I truly do not have an ego, and an ego never served a client? To me, that’s the turning point for some of these innately talented under-performers. Once they know I believe in them, truly, and let them ‘own it’, this is their do-or-die moment they don’t know I will be judging them on. If they are in it for the client and not for me, if they truly love what they do (as a career in advertising can never be just for a paycheck), you will see your creative concept through.
Nothing kills a worker’s soul like feeling they are stagnating or being sold a lie. Your startup might be trying to change the world for the better, and you might have heard that people value meaningful work over a simple paycheck. That is true. But they also want credit for good ideas. They need room to grow. That’s why I’ll bonus an employee on the spot when they put in extra effort, and I don’t wait for quarterly check-ins or annual reviews to promote and raise the higher achievers.
Nobody is perfect. We all have highs and lows throughout the day, the week, our entire lives. I can’t pretend that a longtime, dedicated team member won’t have off days (hangovers) or off months (bad breakups, and ensuing hangovers). I can cut loyal employees some slack during these times, and they’ll recognize that if I deal with them at their worst, they deserve to give me their best whenever possible. You can’t apply this to the new hire who calls in sick three days in the first two weeks, but it’s pretty easy to tell when slacking is the norm or the exception for someone.
Before I started my branding agency, I wasn’t thinking about human behavior in the office in this way. I was young and dumb (thank god). What you don’t know can take you a long way. As a brand consultancy, I think about people’s purchasing habits. If our client is B2B, I’ll consider the purchaser’s workplace as a way of relating to and appealing to the target audience. Every business owner’s narrative is of interest to me. It’s how a full-service creative agency gets clients earned media in business outlets. People are not buying the product spec sheet when we do our job. They’re buying into your narrative, your passion, your story. Once we gain credibility there, the strategic partnerships and the press we need to get you in front of your target audience will follow. As the design agency and brand consultant firm expands, I have to grapple with these aspects of human nature and determine how I’m going to deal with them. If you are a business owner, I’m sure you’re dealing with the same.