The price of talent

I often wonder about how serious companies are about getting the best staff.

I often wonder about how serious companies are about getting the best staff.

I often wonder about how serious companies are about getting the best staff.

In the world of advertising, heads of agencies moan about their declining status with clients compared with management consultants. Yet, when it comes to recruiting the best talent they have not been prepared to compete – offering salaries at least a third lower than management consultants. The very best MBAs have been given a terrific grounding in general business management that agency managers woefully lack, so they are able to contribute to their clients’ businesses on a broader basis.

Today, the advertising sector is being used in an increasingly narrow way by clients, despite the widespread recognition by top management of the importance of building strong brands. The inability to communicate with senior management in their language is a key reason for the decline in the status of ad agencies in particular, and the marketing services sector in general.

But a reluctance to pay the market price is only one cause for a company’s shortage of talent. Many bosses are scared of hiring or promoting people who might threaten them.

The reality is, if you are ambitious and want to build your business quickly, you have to hire great people, encourage them and empower them, regardless of the old guard in your company probably wanting to see them fail.

You may think you can’t afford the best people, but it is usually the case that, even when you are paying 50 per cent more, that person can easily cover their extra cost many times over.

Promoting highly talented individuals from within your company is a sensible approach: there is less chance of making a mistake and it is a great motivator to other ambitious executives. But if you are really dedicated to building a business quickly (but surely), then you must be prepared to go one stage further and hire people who are better than you.

During the early years of my former company CIA, I was quality controlling the work and invariably presenting it to clients. My team barely got a look in and if they did, it was in a small, supporting role.

Luckily, my ambition for the company was greater than my desire to control everything so, as the company grew, I’d see the work before a client meeting rather than be involved in every step. However, I’d still be leading the pitch and pulling all the strings.

Then, as the company grew some more, those executives who’d built relationships with our clients would be presenting the work themselves and managing the account. I would be called in only for major opportunities – and problems.

In the later years, one of the things that gave me huge pleasure was to slip into a meeting and watch the team doing a really first-rate job. Often the work or thinking by my team was so good that not only did I have nothing to add, I wouldn’t have come up with it in the first place.

When I look back, there is no question that my greatest successes were when I had people working for me who really pushed me – and at their best, were able to replace me.

I’ve heard some entrepreneurs who are really uncomfortable with that idea: ‘But what will I do?’ they ask me. To be blunt, if you have to even ask that question, you are not going to build a big business quickly.

Entrepreneurs often question the value of non-executive directors (NEDs). Here, you are looking for three things: complementary skills; experience and connections. But on top of that, you want people who will speak their mind, not just sit there and draw their monthly fee. In my experience, NEDs can make a valuable contribution in steering the business away from the elephant traps.

Although you should be looking for NEDs who challenge you, there are two things to be wary about. First, you want them to challenge you professionally, not politically. If you have a NED who wants your job, then he or she has not made the crucial time-of-life change of working to advise and mentor, rather than to control. Secondly, you want NEDs who understand entrepreneurs. So, for example, if they have spent a career where everything is pre-planned with few sudden changes, then they will not appreciate the essential agility that successful entrepreneurs possess. Then they will end up fighting you or, as I found when I was CEO of a public company, resign in a big huff at the time of maximum embarrassment.

In short, you need to surround yourself with great talent of all shapes and sizes to make yourself dispensable – and your company an unqualified success.

Chris Ingram

Chris Ingram

Chris Ingram is a businessman, entrepreneur and art collector who was judged London Entrepreneur of the Year' in 2000 in the Ernst & Young awards and was founder of the CIA advertising agency.

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