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The Future Series: Leadership in a Digital World

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Andrew Walker, CEO, SHIFT7 Digital

As a leader of a digital agency that’s in a huge growth period, there’s a lot at stake. Days are stacked with a laundry list of to-dos and meetings, a lot of which are virtual and across multiple time zones—we’ve now got offices in New York, Raleigh, Chicago, and are looking to expand farther west. I’ve got my hands in operations, sales, marketing, HR, you name it, and I like to keep myself accessible to everyone on the team. I always try to operate with a people-first mentality. 

In fact, I recently found myself thinking about leadership, the challenges leaders face, and what it takes to be a good leader in 2019. And, unsurprisingly, people came to mind immediately. Why? For a number of reasons. One being that without people, there’s no one to lead or be led (and no one to keep the business alive!). People are the lifeblood of the organization. So I find it imperative to make sure they feel supported in all they do, from taking initiative and risks to feeling confident enough to vocalize an idea. 

I also want to ensure that my team is happy and enjoying their work. I often ask my executive team and key direct reports, “are you having fun?” I think that if you’re doing what you like, you’re passionate, and you’re having fun, success will follow, both on personal and organizational levels. It’s a win-win.

As I mentioned earlier, we’ve got offices across the country. For this reason, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of communication. I encourage overcommunication on the regular, in an effort to create full transparency among action items and to ensure nothing falls through the cracks. As a leader, it’s my job to make sure that everyone is on the same page, and keeping an open line of communication does that.

Leadership, of course, comes with its fair share of challenges. And one of the main challenges facing leaders today also has to do with people—hiring the right ones. I apply a slow-to-hire approach, and believe that when you have the right people in place and play to their strengths, you’re going to get the most out of them. As a result, your organization will run like a well-oiled machine.

Recruiting, therefore, is critical. We use tools like a strengthsfinder, Hogan assessment, and other sorts of DISC personality assessments. We’ve also made a point to clearly define our core values so that we can attract people who match them. We honor things like accountability, adaptability, and—you guessed it, fun. When you’ve got like-minded people working together they do really well, and it carries over across different disciplines from design to engineering to sales.

Another challenge leaders face is getting too bogged down in the day-to-day operational aspects of the business and current state of the market. To be successful, leaders need to be thinking six months, 12 months, five years down the road. I’ve found my own success with this by creating a clear vision or north star and sticking to it. I am unwavered in my thinking when it comes to that vision, and that mentality carries through when I have conversations with clients, recruits, colleagues, and peers. It’s absolutely vital to stay clean in your thinking about the future and your beliefs about where the business is going to go.

I thoroughly enjoy leading my team at SHIFT7 day in and day out, despite frequent long days and lots of responsibilities. To those readers who would like to step into a leadership position themselves someday, my advice is twofold: first, be a sponge. The more embedded you get in your line of business, knowing each and every detail, the more successful you’re going to be down the road when it’s time to rise up and manage, lead, and direct. When you’ve got solid experience in the ground level work, you’ll be better able to create a more holistic understanding of the business—the kind that’s required by a strong leader.

Secondly … never stop having fun.

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