The non-exec chairman advantage

The non-exec chairman advantage

I write answers on about entrepreneurship, growth strategy and how to start and build agencies. I’ve done a lot of it myself – like you, I spent many years making it up as I went along, certain it can be done better than the network agencies. In fact I spent twenty-two years as a serial agency founder and CEO before becoming an agency chairman. And I made almost all the mistakes a CEO can possibly make along the way.

After a while, maybe by my third agency (my first two were famous, the second became the digital arm of what’s now MullenLowe), I started getting it right and I rapidly built a category-leading shop. By the end of twenty-two years, I’d had six agencies and been CEO of an agency group startup.

Here is the thing that was my biggest lesson. It stemmed from the greatest problem a founder faces: it’s lonely at the top, because you are the only one, ultimately, who takes on all of the responsibility. You’re the one who doesn’t get paid when a client’s late. You’re the one who takes on the job of firing people when it’s tough – and it’s your fault if you hire the wrong person, and your responsibility to correct it. It’s you.

A tech entrepreneur called Brett Fox summed this loneliness up perfectly. He pointed out that you can’t tell your investor your problems, because they might lose faith; nor your partners, because they might think you’re not pulling your weight; nor your competitors, lest they take advantage; nor your staff, because it will destroy morale; nor your spouse, because you don’t want to overwhelm them. So you keep it to yourself. It’s the burden of responsibility.

It’s stressful.

It took three agencies for me to realise that I could do with some support, ideally wiser, sympathetic, action-oriented. When I found it it changed my life. Here’s what I suddenly got:

  • Someone I could be candid with, share my stresses and uncertainties, and who could reassure me that I wasn’t in this on my own
  • Someone who had been through it themselves, and could identify with the problems, issues and challenges my agency was facing
  • Someone who had made their own mistakes, found solutions, and could tell me both what to do in common situations (and believe me they are all common situations) and what not to do because it wouldn’t work or was a waste of precious time when I could be focusing on more productive, profitable and satisfying things instead
  • Someone who could teach me the shortcuts and help train my team to be more effective in a shorter time without the trial-and-error

That’s why you need an external advisor, be it a non-executive director or a chairman.

But there’s more. After fifteen years of wild feast-and-famine agency life I actually found people with simple methodologies for achieving high, steady growth. These advisors gave me something remarkable that isn’t just about a sympathetic ear: they also held me to my commitments. They listened, advised, evaluated my decisions and held me to account. When we structured actions to achieve a strategy, they came each month and made sure my team and I were delivering what we had decided on. Suddenly internal projects weren’t being dropped half way through because so-and-so had resigned or a client had left or we had four pitches on; our external advisor expected us to do what we promised regardless and held our feet to the flames. And the results were staggering.

I stopped being a CEO after my last agency sale. For the past few years my life has been filled with the (very real) pleasure of being the external advisor. I use those bulletproof processes and frameworks to deliver 20% profits and 2 or 3x growth over a couple of years. And of just as much value, founders get the support they simply can’t get from anyone else in their lives.

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