We were fortunate to have most of the company in the office this past week for some meetings and our winter party, and it was so great to experience all of that energy concentrated in one place. My colleagues and I gave a presentation to remind everyone (including ourselves) what we had accomplished together in 2022. That exercise made me reflect on how the company has grown, and a few lessons emerged.
Change is when the most interesting stuff happens
This year, we hired 17 people and experienced several departures. The common thread was change—sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic.
We have an interesting relationship with change in this business. We need stability to do our best work, but the ability to embrace and respond to change is an essential part of client service. When priorities shift and timelines get compressed, our job is to adapt and show clients what we can do in challenging circumstances.
It’s also how we grow. A couple of our departments had to deal with the absence of their managers for weeks or months. It was gratifying to see my colleagues step up, stretch, learn, and keep everything functioning as smoothly as possible. In those times, people discover new skills or a higher gear they didn’t realize they had. And as an organization, we get more adept at making these adjustments through repetition.
Humility is a vital part of improvement
Even if you’ve never heard of the Scottish author Samuel Smiles, you’re likely familiar with his maxim: “we learn wisdom from failure much more than from success.” (That his legacy has been reduced to a successory is a cruel indignity.) We took on a number of projects this year that stretched us far beyond our comfort zone. Some were successful, some less so, but all were incredibly valuable. Postmortems helped us to pinpoint where we need to improve and helped us build institutional knowledge.
This kind of learning often requires us to take an honest accounting of our performance, which can be uncomfortable and humbling. For example, when I got wind that a client had shared some negative feedback regarding her experience on a project, I encouraged the lead editor to reach out. It resulted in a constructive conversation, strengthened our connection with that account, and led to a follow-up project. If you can be brave enough to acknowledge where you fell short, you can become better much more quickly.
Sometimes, you get it right
A lot of the initial ideas we had about how to run this company have fallen by the wayside as we’ve grown. What worked when we were 12 people no longer makes sense at 41. But a couple elements of our philosophy have stood the test of time.
First, we adopted the no-asshole rule at the outset (it’s in our employee handbook), and it continues to pay dividends. No matter how tense things get sometimes, our teams don’t devolve into screaming and recrimination. It’s easier to remember we’re all pulling in the same direction when high performers are also good human beings.
Second, our mantra has always been “productivity, not presence.” A few years ago, that meant some colleagues worked from home a couple of days a week. Now it means the majority of people don’t come into the office even one day a week. We now have employees across the country—and even some in Europe. And yet our productivity hasn’t suffered. We hire adults, expect them to be able to work autonomously, and provide them with clear direction and support. This approach opens up new opportunities. For instance, one colleague worked from Paris for two months this year just because she could. Forcing someone to come into the office just so they can be on Zoom calls with clients all day seems pointless. So we leave it up to our colleagues to make choices that enable them to be as productive as possible.
That does mean we have to be far more thoughtful in how we maintain our culture and ensure people feel connected—which brings us back to the gathering we just had. No matter what 2023 brings, I’m confident in our collective ability to meet it head on. A big thanks to all my colleagues here for their effort.
Here’s hoping the holidays are peaceful and joyous for you. All the best for the coming year.