Mandy Gilbert is the CEO of Creative Niche
The North American creative industry tends to be very fluid and flexible. When the very best of the best become entrenched at one agency, they have the power to define its work and its brand. Some virtually become the brand. That’s why many of you may recognize the following scenario from experience, or dread it happening.
Business is humming along nicely when your Creative MVP (these people are often so important their unofficial title deserves capitalization) sends an email or walks by your desk to request a meeting. In her hand is an envelope or piece of paper that you quickly realize — both from the tension in the air and nervousness in your star employee’s voice — is a resignation letter.
You also realize that piece of paper could serve as a death knell for your business. But more on that later.
So, you sit down and try to muster up a smile and supportive tone as you receive the news. Assuming you’re not the type who’s prone to fits of rage at the first sign of perceived disloyalty — and the Creative MVP isn’t jumping to a competitor, which might require their immediate departure — you take it in stride and wish her the very best. It’s the right approach: accept the resignation with class and appreciation of their time, commitment and accomplishments.
The meeting ends and now you start to panic. Inside your head, a worst-case scenario plays out. Questions whiz from one side of your brain to the other. How will this move impact our culture? How should we make the announcement? What’s going to happen when our key clients find out and question the impact on their deliverables? Will competitors try to poach the rest of our all-star creatives, or will our top performers simply choose to leave, assuming it’s better to abandon what looks like a sinking ship before it takes them down, too.
Here’s some advice: slow down and breathe. Understand these are all perfectly valid fears and that catastrophic thinking is a natural default when a disruptive event ripples across any workplace. It also helps kick us all into survivor mode to manage the initial shock and awe of any major resignation.
But from that point on, how you manage and communicate the news is a direct reflection of your leadership abilities. And at a time like this, a leader needs to execute with business continuity, confidence and strategy in mind.
Here’s what do to:
At least at first. Understand who is aware of the resignation internally and request confidentiality until a specific date/time when you can comfortably share your communication strategy with your departing Creative MVP before making an official announcement.
Understand the work flow
Again, assuming this is an amicable resignation, ask for a progress report on all of the Creative MVP’s active files, and how they can best be transitioned to other team members. Also look for their recommendations on how best to communicate and transition key projects, accounts and relationships.
Pull your leaders together
If you have a leadership team, call a meeting by end-of-day and present the facts, then brainstorm to map out a comprehensive recruitment, transition and communication strategy. During that conversation, discuss ways in which the individual excelled, along with her skill gaps. If you were to replace that Creative MVP, what would success look like in three, six and 12 months?
If you don’t have a leadership team, leave the office and call a mentor or trusted advisor to help you walk through the same conversation and discussion points. Having these discussions will protect your confidence and put a strategy in place to ease the transition.
Break the news
In some cases it makes more sense to deliver news such as this to your team in person, at other times by email, or sometimes both. The medium depends on the size of your agency and who works the closest with your Creative MVP. But even before you make the announcement, anticipate the multitude of potential questions and concerns your team might raise, then address each of them with an action plan. Those questions might include:
• Recruitment plans, specifically how these very large shoes are going to be filled. Is there an opportunity to promote a promising current employee, or is an internal move even a consideration? When are you planning to fill this position? At this point it’s always wise to have the job description in hand as a means to demonstrate your preparation and willingness to take action.
• Will the team be burdened with extra work until you find someone new? Can they rely on resources from a different team or will they have a budget for freelancers?
• On the business front, how will this news be communicated to key clients and how will work be transitioned to others within the organization? You need specifics here, including timing, a schedule of necessary meetings and a follow-up action plan.
• Why is this person leaving in the first place? How are you (as an owner/manager) feeling about our prospects as a company given this change? Feel free to be vulnerable and honest to reassure your staff they’re not alone in feeling insecure. Was there anything that you learned as a result of this resignation that can help improve our workplace culture?
• Are you committed to supporting the business during this transition, and will you be available to answer our questions and concerns?
At this point, it’s important to look forward and remind employees that the agency’s continued success will require a team effort. Emphasize the great momentum you’ve built together, key accounts that continue to thrive, how the company is tracking financially (if you maintain an open-book policy) and challenge them by setting new goals. Remind them that losing a key creative professional hurts, but in the long term your agency will only become stronger, attracting new talent and clients to remain on the leading edge. This is also the time to acknowledge your team on a regular basis (if you don’t already), listen to their ideas and concerns, and provide guidance until the Creative MVP can be replaced.
One last piece of advice: remember that although daunting, this is the type of incident that virtually all of your competitors have been forced to manage at some point in their careers. Rest assured—assuming you manage this transition effectively—your agency will survive and your clients will remain loyal. This is a natural process for any business.
Now it’s time to get to work, be committed to hiring your next, great Creative MVP and giving him the chance to make your agency shine.