I normally write for sellers. But I wanted this piece -- originally published with 212NYC -- to resonate with our entire community - buyers, sellers, clients, data providers, HR people....everybody. So I've chosen to address the elephants that dwell in all of our rooms: cynicism, burnout and disengagement.
We're still very much part of a growth business and we're all paying people pretty well, at least compared to the average American employers. Hell, a lot of us even provide snacks and in-house recreation for our employees. But whether you're running an agency, a publisher sales team, an account management group or any other group of people in our business, you struggle to create a strong culture of possibility and hope. As a result, otherwise-talented people burn out...they complain to one another... they disengage....and quite often they leave you too early.
It doesn't have to be this way.
The first step out of this downward spiral is to acknowledge where your people come from and what they've come to expect. The vast majority of our team members (millennials in particular but not exclusively) grew up in cultures of short-term success. Take a class and in 9 weeks you get a B or an A. Try out for a team and in fairly short order you know if you're on the roster. Apply to colleges and within four months you get your acceptance letters. Given that we are hiring from among the graduates of fairly elite colleges, they've won a lot more often than they've lost.
Now put your people into our ambivalent, asymmetrical business world. As managers and leaders, we are still running cultures of short-term success ("...win this RFP....win this agency review... break this technology client..."), but that success can be ephemeral, fleeting and often entirely beyond our control. To those accustomed to consistent and well-scheduled victories, this can feel hellish.
The answer is stop concentrating on success. Instead, focus your team on deserving success. It sounds like a semantic change, but it's far more than that.
Shifting your focus to deserving - the sale, the account, the client's agreement, the budget increase - means you are now talking about (and rewarding) excellence. Winning is entirely out of your control: a team can do literally everything right and still have the ball bounce the wrong way. Deserving success is completely controllable. It's about preparation, work ethic, genuine empathy for the customer, diligence and grit. Deserving success means focusing on process and standards - on how (and how consistently) you play the game.
As Thomas Boswell wrote in "Heart of the Game," success burns out the athlete. The pursuit of excellence, on the other hand, nourishes and motivates. A famous soccer coach was asked what kind of players he tried to recruit. "You can keep the ones who want to be the best player on the team or the best in the league," he explained. "Give me the ones who want to be better than they were yesterday."
And as John Adams wrote to a nervous Thomas Jefferson when the fate of the American Revolution was at best uncertain: "We cannot assure success. We can only deserve it."
So deserve it. It will center your people and your company on excellence and will make you a truly exceptional leader.