Fighting Founders Part Three Changing Roles In Medias Res

Often the people who start an agency or production company are creatives, and they do the work themselves. Writers write, designers design, editors edit, directors direct. As the company grows, one or both of them may take on other roles. Maybe one founder becomes the Chief Executive Officer and one becomes the Chief Creative Officer. That can create tension and conflict because the skills that make great creatives are very different from the ones that make strong leaders.

My advice? Don’t do this. Hire an actual manager. If both founders are creatives, then they should focus on creative output, hire an experienced leader who understands the mechanics of running an agency, and get out of the way and let that person lead every aspect of the business that the founders can’t or won’t do consistently and effectively.

But if you’re not willing to do that, or one of you really wants to change roles and has decided that CEO is where you need to be, here are some specific challenges that can arise when one of the founders decides to move into an administrative, managerial role and suggestions for how to avoid them.

Let’s assume that one founder is going to stay in the creative role as CCO and the other is going to become CEO. First, figure out exactly who does what. Too often I’ve seen plans that the CEO will do “the vision thing” and “get the word out”. What specifically does that look like? What role does the CEO have in new business pitches or getting new revenue? What does the transition look like? How much money are you willing to commit to training and ongoing support of the new CEO? Does the financial arrangement change in any way? What are the goals? How do you know it’s working—and what happens if it doesn’t? Again, the best bet is a clear conversation up front about roles and responsibilities, preferably with a knowledgeable but impartial third party.

One common challenge arises when the CEO starts to miss doing creative work and gets bored, then tries to keep a hand in by doing a project or two because that’s familiar, it’s why they got into this work in the first place. Then the CCO gets cranky because his or her patch is being invaded, the rest of the staff isn’t sure who is doing what, and things only get worse. The key is to determine what to do if the person moving into the more managerial role starts to miss his or her old role. Ask the question. How can this person stay creative in the new role? What will make them excited to go to work?

Anticipate conflict. Shifting roles is change, and change makes people uncomfortable. Plan ahead. Have regular check-ins. Establish goals and metrics. Maybe work with a third party to keep you accountable. Don’t just assume that it will run smoothly and all you need to do is print up new business cards.

Be careful about money. If the person moving into the CEO role isn’t a whiz with money, finance and operations, please make sure they have some financial oversight. A part time consultant to act as CFO, a strong financial advisor, a regular bookkeeper. This seems like an obvious recommendation but I’ve seen this happen many times. Financially managing an agency is tricky work and not something that can be learned quickly or easily. And a financial mistake can sink an agency.  

And for the CCO in this situation? Remember that senior creative leadership is different than creative work. One of the pitfalls here is the CCO who won’t tolerate other styles. Somehow every concept and every execution looks like the CCO’s – all other styles or voices get shut down. Even if the work is good, and the agency’s reputation is built on it, it will be hard to keep good creative talent if they aren’t allowed to develop their own voices. Remember, freelancers are like bees, pollinating other freelancers and potential hires with gossip when a CCO won’t allow anyone else to actually do any work of their own.


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