Tony Robbins. A primetime news broadcaster. The front-man for a popular band. What do they all have in common? One heck of a team behind the scenes that brings their respective magic to life.
Your favorite newscaster, for example, may be a star. But the folks in the control room are the ones running the show. Aaron Sorkin’s show Newsroom puts the chemistry between newsroom team and big personality broadcaster on captivating and insightful display as only Sorkin can. I love it so much not just because the writing is brilliant but more because of the truths it conveys:
- big personalities cannot do it alone;
- uncontrolled ego is a destructive force;
- mutual deference between authority figures (e.g. between the broadcaster and the EP [executive producer]) is central to trust, alignment, and performance; and
- cohesion of team (with the star included) bonded by a noble purpose bigger than any one person and empowered through principles, process, and standards is the engine that produces and delivers value to others.
This behind the scenes work is exciting and messy at the same time. When it’s done well, the outward projection appears effortless to readers, fans, audiences, and anyone else who may be observing what we do. However, anything that appears effortless is never actually so. Making magic happen is messier than most people think. And it takes an unimaginable amount of practice, individually and collectively, to get good at it.
I admit that I’m a romantic when it comes to this stuff. I live in the control room directing others to conform chaos into order to achieve our intentions much like Mackenzie McKale of Newsroom’s fictional News Night so that the show can go off without a hitch. It’s always a challenge. And it’s always worth it because that’s where the magic comes from.
Care to take a peek inside our control room? You won't find anyone wearing a headset. And we don’t work behind TV cameras. What we do have are a collection of things that give our work its form and function. We may not be movie stars but I like to think that this stuff equips us with our own form of magic.
As you explore our inner workings in this chapter, think hard about your own. Take notes. Write down questions. Scribble out rough workflow diagrams. Do whatever you need to do to begin forming workable models for your own business operations. Use us as a mirror. That's not to say that you can or should mimic everything we do. We are far from perfect and not an exemplar of all things for all business types. Rather, by studying us and comparing what you see to yourself and your vision for your own business, you'll begin to see in high-definition what you want to replicate, what you feel won't work for you, and which parts are missing for your model that need to be filled in.
Okay, let’s get started. First up, our operational Northstar: purpose.
A company’s purpose gives definition to its intention. Purpose should manifest in a few different forms including a stated mission, vision, and core values for the team to rally behind. If these central artifacts don’t exist, then there is no good rally point.
This rally point is seminal to keeping team members in sync with each other so that everyone is rowing in the same direction. If they aren’t, then the team can spin and get nowhere fast even if the individual outputs from each person or department are adequate.
In this way, a common purpose unifies a team much like sheet music unifies a symphony of musicians. In both cases, the output quality of an individual (your copywriter, a clarinet player) or department (your marketing team, the winds section) matters less than how that output integrates with the output of others to achieve the endgame (hitting your goals, delivering a masterful symphonic performance). If the output is disjointed because there was no governing purpose, then you risk making not music but noise and wasting a lot of time, energy, and resources doing so.
We spent most of day one during our Q1 business meeting in January 2019 immersed in this subject matter. It was critical to give this stuff immediate attention after merging so that we didn’t leave the dock without a rudder. It was a powerful and inspiring experience as we worked through ideas and feedback together. What emerged couldn’t have been achieved alone. It was a team effort, which is the point.
We later reconvened as a team for our 2020 strategic planning summit. Once again, we allocated the majority of our day one agenda to this same subject matter. Why? Two important reasons: (1) During our first year of work together as an integrated in-house team, we learned a lot about ourselves, our fans, and our business that deserved to be reflected on and woven into our purpose. And (2) based on those learnings, we needed to fine-tune our mission and vision statements to supercharge our acute 2020 business plan as well as our emergent three-year multi-generational plan (MGP).
Here is what our purpose looks like now after this deep reflection:
Mission: To elevate entrepreneurs to within reach of their dreams.
Vision: SPI is a trusted learning and development ecosystem that serves a worldwide community of online entrepreneurs. The community is alive with individuals and teams from all walks of life and at all stages of their entrepreneurial journeys bonded by a common cause—to build purpose-driven and profitable businesses they can be proud of. SPI empowers its community members to take action toward achieving their goals by providing best-in-class educational content and training experiences. Beyond its own creations, SPI partners up with other industry experts to develop and champion useful resources that further enable its own mission.
- Work With Purpose—The best, most valuable work we can do comes from focusing on priorities, reducing waste of resources, providing helpful feedback, and collaborating with positive intentions.
- Take Care—We strive to care for our team and our community through being considerate of the needs, goals, and boundaries of all, weaving empathy and service into every action and intention.
- Embrace the Process—Be curious. Question assumptions and explore opportunities. Learn from failure and admit mistakes. Reduce chaos. Promote sustainability. And find as much joy in the work as in the success.
- Own Your Outcome—Embrace the privilege that responsibilities provide to do deep work that delivers meaningful results and makes a positive difference in the lives of others.
- Share Without Ego—We offer the complete picture of our experiences—to ourselves and to our audience—to enable authentic learning that promote our values without compromise.
- Choose Health—We embrace, without guilt, the flexibility of our work life that allows us to take care of ourselves first so that we can better serve others.
Mission is a declaration that ideally will waver very little (if at all) over time. It is elemental to your existence. By contrast, vision is an expression of the mission in more concrete terms that *can* be realized over time. Vision statements are usually crafted to represent a two- to three-year pursuit. Finally, core values exist to ensure that those enrolled to help realize the vision do so within a framework of behaviors and cultural norms that promote the caliber of action and accountabilities necessary for success.
Putting this stuff on paper isn’t enough. That’s why for us at SPI, we talk about these things at our quarterly business meetings as well as during routine 1:1 check-in meetings. It’s why we reference these things when we’re debating a big and bold new idea to potentially invest our resources in, such as a new online course or future event offering. In all, these things provide a leveling benchmark for us to use to frame our thoughts, orient our feedback, and govern our actions as a team.
Ensuring safe air exists within our culture is a vital enabler of our purpose. For instance, trading opposing ideas for how to organize and execute our next online course launch can be touchy but is necessary to arrive at the best plan. Additionally, delivering feedback to someone, including to Pat and me, when an important internal deadline is missed that adversely impacts a project is a sensitive moment, yes, but one that cannot be brushed under the rug so that we don’t allow that to become our norm.
The quality of our talks, as well as the efficacy of their outcomes, are inextricably linked to how candidly our purpose is channeled during those conversations. Charles Duhigg (the author of The Power of Habit) beautifully illustrates this theme in his New York Times article about Google's quest to build the “perfect team.” In it, Duhigg reports on Google's big discovery: that “psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.”
Nailing your company’s purpose is harder than it looks. And I believe that degree of difficulty increases exponentially as more people enter the picture. So hunker down with your co-founder, partner, or team. Workshop this stuff with safe air. I bet you'll be pleasantly surprised with what you come up with if you give this the attention it deserves.
People and Partnerships
People are the conduit of your purpose. Recruiting, hiring, on-boarding, training, supporting, and empowering the right people in the right roles is vital to any operation.
We have eight talented professionals on our in-house team, including Pat and me. We serve in roles spanning different functions: marketing, partnerships, education, operations, finance, solutions, product, and technology. Marketing and partnerships roll up into our Growth Team, whereas Education is a standalone team. Pat leads both of those. Solutions, product, and technology all roll up into our Innovation Team. I lead that team in addition to operations and finance. And Pat and I together share executive responsibilities.
If the prospect of hiring staff gives you goosebumps, don't worry. You don't need to hire anyone if that feels out of place for your business. Often, startup companies and lifestyle businesses can be effectively operated by you and your co-founders, at least in the beginning. Some can continue on in that manner perhaps indefinitely. However, at some point, you’ll need help. Be okay asking for it when that moment arrives.
We ask for help from others all the time because our in-house team cannot possibly do everything alone. For starters, we still collaborate with freelancers who have unique skills that we do not have in house. We also involve consultants from time to time to pressure-test our own thinking, train us on a new skill or competency area, or lend an alternative point of view even if we think we’re on the right track with a big decision or project. Such individuals include our designers, business coach, book launch consultant, and community manager among others. We cherish these folks as extended team members.
We’re also extremely grateful to work with individuals that we regard as creative partners in our work. Caleb Wojcik of Caleb Wojcik Films exemplifies this caliber of partner. He is our videographer for all video work that Pat doesn’t do himself. He’s a trusted advisor as we vet business plans. And he’s even Pat’s business partner in Switch Pod—which is wicked cool.
Our strategic partners are in a class by themselves. We’re so fortunate to have deep and meaningful relationships with the likes of ConvertKit, Teachable, RightMessage, and other platform partners. Equally so, we’re excited to have deep relationships with our web design and development service partner, Authentik, as well as Pat’s literary agency for book deals, organizers of marquee events like Podcast Movement and Social Media Marketing World, and influencers like Michael Hyatt whom we admire, support, and do occasional joint promotions with. Our ability to live out our purpose is significantly enabled thanks to these folks.
Policy and Performance
Yikes, policy and performance. That sounds dry. I understand that sentiment. I also assure you that providing clear guidance to the team on what does and does not constitute good performance aligned with and enabling of our purpose is a linchpin in our operations, as it very well should be in the operations of any company with a magnanimous purpose.
First off, we embrace remote work and champion its ethos as a pillar of the future of work. That is our policy and preference. All of us work remotely, even if we reside in a city with a fellow team member. For instance, Sara Jane, our partnerships manager, and I both call Columbus, Ohio home. Similarly, both Pat and Jess, Pat's assistant, reside in San Diego. We make efforts to work from coworking facilities regularly because, still, there is no substitute for in-person collaboration. (We do have an HQ1 office in San Diego as well as an HQ2 office in Columbus for such occasions.) And we gather as a full team at least twice per year. But most of our team operations function wherever there is a good internet connection. (Let’s be real, we don’t always have quality wifi.)
Next, we have a formal employee handbook of policies and procedures that is a key part of our human resources management. Why are we so serious about this stuff? Because having a child is a serious moment in one’s life. Because getting called to jury duty is a serious event. Because harassment in any form is a serious offense. Because confidentiality is a serious aspect of business. Because travel is a serious business expense. Because time off, in its various forms, is a serious benefit extended to the team that they rightly expect to be honored.
Our employee handbook gets ahead on all of the above situations and many more by stating how we will handle such situations if and when they arise. Already this year, we’ve had a team member called to jury duty; folks using paid time off to travel the world including Hong Kong, Japan, Germany, and Greece; and someone who welcomed the arrival of their firstborn child (um, that’d be me) as well as someone else about to welcome theirs.
I’m a staunch advocate for formalizing such policies not just because it’s good business but more so because it’s being a good human. Certainly, at some point in a business’s growth, these things become legal requirements. Even then, I encourage you not to think about them as dry things you have to do. Rather, I hope you can lean into these expressions of your culture because you care about them. Here's an excerpt from our Parental Leave policy to give you a flavor of how we embrace these opportunities to care for our team:
“[SPI] believes unequivocally that what is good for its employees and their families is also good for business. Therefore, [SPI] proudly offers a progressive gender-neutral parental leave policy of up to six (6) weeks paid leave (“Parental Leave”) to all of its eligible employees. After six (6) weeks, a full-time employee has the option to come back in a part-time capacity, elect to take unpaid time off, or a combination of the two for up to a total of twelve (12) weeks. . . . The purpose of this policy is to afford parents the quality time and flexibility they need to bond with their new child, adjust to new family situations and schedules, and otherwise do what is necessary on the home front so that when the time comes to return to work the employee is rested, energized, focused, and prepared.”
The above has been inspired by and adopted from a host of companies that champion the same values through their parental leave policies, including such vanguards as Etsy.
Also, we require formal agreements with all of our team members whether they be in-house or not. Declaring the boundaries of any relationship is important for all involved. I know way too many companies that shirk their responsibilities on this front. We don’t.
Finally, we are big champions for the growth and development of our team. That devotion manifests as a combination of performance reviews and professional development plans. Performance feedback is given and discussed regularly in 1:1 check-in meetings. And it’s formalized in annual performance reviews. (Which we are likely to evolve into quarterly reviews.) While discussing performance can be awkward, it’s an essential leadership skill that must be developed and utilized with the right intentions—to support and enable the growth of the team member consistent with the business's purpose.
Process and Management
Let's be real: Process can be both a lifesaver and a straight jacket. Process for process-sake is indeed a joke. But disdain for process and the outright rejection of it are willful derelictions of duty for any entrepreneur and business leader motivated to achieve big things.
When deployed well, process is protective armor from the following threats:
- Distractions and interruptions that pull attention away from your priorities
- Wasteful ideation that stymies progress or undoes nearly completed work
- Quality and non-compliance issues in your experiences, services, or products
- Burnout of team members and partners due to disorganized collaboration
- Acrimony and infighting within your culture because expectations aren’t standardized
- Uncontrolled spending that isn’t conscious about its impacts on the bottom line
Furthermore, good process is rocket fuel that ignites the following capabilities:
- Delegation of work to others who are empowered to execute
- Healthy checks and balances between visionary and operational forces
- Effective dissemination of information to the team and other stakeholders
- Timely responsiveness to and recovery from unexpected adversities
- Sustainable resource management including assignments to team members
That said, too much process can immobilize your team by stifling creative thinking, requiring unnecessary busy work, causing disengagement from your business purpose and from each other, among other systemic issues.
The secret sauce of process lies in assembling together acute processes that each target a specific workflow pattern or need. Alone, any one process is small and manageable. Together, they work like linked armor that enables lightweight and nimble performance (versus plate metal armor that constricts performance because it's big, heavy, and rigid).
Here are some of our most important processes within SPI:
- Strategic business planning
- Month-end and quarter-end financial close
- Editorial management and publishing
- Online course production and launch
- Cross-functional governance
Each of these processes is a targeted workflow within a specific business function owned by the individual leading in that function. For example, Janna (our executive editor), defined, implemented, and leads our editorial management and publishing process. Over years of refinement, it's become a gold standard for us that enables all of us involved in content creation to operate efficiently. The end result is that we’re months ahead on quality content for the blog and both podcasts SPI and AskPat at any given moment.
Cross-functional governance deserves special mention because it’s the one process to rule them all. Lord of the Rings quips aside, our governance process doesn’t rule in a harsh manner. We don’t require arduous paperwork to be completed for every project we do. We keep team meetings to a minimum. And we don’t micro-manage.
Instead, our governance process provides a stable and sustainable foundation upon which managers in the team are empowered with autonomy and authority to plan, organize, and execute their work in direct collaboration with others on the team.
Our model comprises the following components:
- A weekly one-on-one between individuals and their immediate supervisor to review performance expectations, exchange feedback, touch base on work assignments, and generally lend support.
- A two-week sprint schedule that serves as a common measuring stick to organize and integrate work across projects and departments.
- A weekly all-hands staff meeting on Mondays executed like a standup where everyone gets the mic to share their plan for the week ahead and any blockers they’re facing.
- A weekly retrospective and prospective on Fridays to connect with each other both professionally and personally to share our wins, acknowledge our struggles, and crowdsource any previously unacknowledged risks to upcoming plans.
- A bi-weekly (every other week) sprint meeting on Wednesdays that serves as a check-in on project milestones, a showcase of completed work that needs to be presented for feedback or a decision, and a forum for discussing and aligning on the next sprint.
Some of us have a couple of extra planned meetings. For instance, Pat and I have a leadership meeting on Fridays following our retro. And Pat has a unified Growth+Education planning meeting with Janna, Karen (our marketing manager), and SJ (our partnerships manager) on Mondays before the staff meeting.
Beyond the day-to-day stuff, we incorporate the following strategic components into our operating model:
- An annual business planning meeting (in person) where big-picture ideas and continuous improvement opportunities are discussed and synthesized into detail to inform financial projections and culminate in actionable strategic plans aligned to our declared objectives and goals.
- Quarterly business meetings (sometimes in person) to review progress against the annual business plan, review status on individual strategic plans, identify necessary adjustments to our plans, exchange feedback, celebrate wins, and more.
Our governance model doesn't come straight out of one book. Instead, as a process wonk, I've assimilated together different ideas and components from a variety of experiences I've had and sources I've encountered throughout my career. If you're interested in this stuff, I encourage you to read The Agile Manifesto, The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz, Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. That list is not an exhaustive one but it's a great start. Those publications were among the most influential on my understanding of effective workflows and governance methods.
That’s a lot of ink on process and management. It may make you think that we’ve gotten all our process kinks ironed out. Far from it. While we’re pros at a lot of this stuff, we remain quite imperfect. In fact, this is perhaps the one area of our company that warrants the most attention and innovation as we further transform and grow as a merged team.
To close out here, breathe easy knowing that you shouldn't over-engineer your business operations out of the gate. As we'll hit on in a later chapter, all businesses go through different lifecycle stages. Each stage has unique characteristics and demands. Business dynamics should, therefore, remain somewhat organic so as to adapt and conform to the unique needs of a given phase.
That said, there are some perennial traps to avoid as you structure, operationalize, and grow your new venture. What are these common mistakes that risk ruin for your business? Find out in the next chapter!