The essence of the entrepreneurial spirit: crossroads

In this final post, Elise Mitchell shares some of the pivotal points of her entrepreneurial experience and the lessons she learned along the way.

The dinner wasn't going very well. We were supposed to be celebrating our move into new offices, one of several big investments we'd made that year to prepare the agency to grow. But beyond a little chit-chat, no one was talking.

It was September 2008. Despite my high hopes for a great night, I realized my team wasn't worried about where they were going to sit in the new office. They wondered whether they'd have a job by the end of the year.

Sound familiar? The recession tested the mettle of everyone, not just entrepreneurs. But those of us who were building businesses and had every dime invested in our dreams found ourselves at a particularly difficult point. When you are in the role of a builder, no matter how hard you try to prepare for the future, the unexpected often happens. When it does, others will turn to you for answers you just don't have. What do you do then?

We've had plenty of crossroads moments throughout our journey at Mitchell Communications Group, and I've become a passionate storyteller of the more defining times and the lessons learned along the way. What I've discovered is that there are some critical actions you can take that will propel you and your company forward, even in times of great uncertainty.

Making key hires
There is only one of you. As a new venture grows, you must assemble a team of talented individuals who can help you take the business to the next level. This is a crossroads moment for many entrepreneurs who can never bring themselves to trust, equip, and empower others in high-level roles.

I decided early on the best way to grow the agency was to hire for my own weaknesses and avoid “plate-stacking.” In other words, I found the smartest people I could who would complement and not duplicate my strengths. That strategy has been essential to our success as each leader we've brought in – starting from my first major hire in 2005 – has helped improve and expand the agency in some way. As a result, we are far better together.

Staying focused on what you can control
What happened that September night nearly five years ago was a defining moment for all of us. As I looked at the faces of my team, I knew we had to find a way forward, or the company could be lost. Nobody imagined how long the recession might last or what its impact would be, but I firmly believed that an agency like ours could do more than just survive, we would thrive. I told our team that night I knew we could win, but we had to be decisive.

Instead of wasting time worrying about ourselves, we needed to remain focused on our clients. In the weeks that followed, we worked by our clients' sides, remaining nimble and responsive to their needs. In some cases, we turned projects overnight. We did whatever it took to help them succeed during this difficult time. Sure enough, budgets that had been taken off the table got approved again -- sometimes at the 11th hour, and we were able to help our clients win when it mattered most.

From this experience, I learned the importance of staying focused on what you can control to increase your chances of affecting a positive outcome. And by instilling confidence in others, you help them see how they can overcome a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

Evolving as a leader
Ironically, the fall of 2008 turned out to be the start of a sustained period of rapid growth for our company. And it led to an even more challenging crossroads moment than this. Overnight, the agency began to change. As the company grew exponentially, we needed more people, more space, better software. You name it, we had to have it -- and fast. While we had hoped for growth, we had no idea how swiftly it would happen and what would be required to manage it effectively.

This is the classic crossroads moment for an entrepreneur who realizes he or she must work on the business, not just in it. Just because you're a great “craftsman” doesn't mean you can, or really have the desire to, run a company. However, if you're willing to evolve as a leader, you can leverage opportunities like this to accelerate growth.

In my case, I knew I needed a game plan. So I attended an executive education program at Dartmouth specifically focused on our situation called “Growing Your Business to Scale.” From this deep dive, I developed a comprehensive strategy to manage the business going forward, hired smart consultants to help us put it into practice, and most importantly turned to my senior leadership team. By involving them early on, we came up with better solutions together and they were able to take on larger roles as the company grew into the midsize agency we are today. Looking back, I could see how critical my first crossroads moment really was – making key hires. But if you don't truly trust, equip, and empower your team, you'll never realize the full benefit of what they have to offer. The best leaders are willing to evolve, but they enable others to grow, too.

These are just a few of many crossroads moments in my journey, how they shaped our agency and helped me grow as a leader. What are the defining decisions of your entrepreneurial experience, and what lessons have you learned along the way?

Elise Mitchell is CEO of Mitchell Communications Group and the Dentsu Public Relations Network. She can be reached: @elisemitch and elise@mitchcommgroup.com.

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