How Joe Phelps positioned his firm to develop strong leadership skills at every level

Joe Phelps, Founder and CEO, The Phelps Group

Joe Phelps had built much of his life around his business, but that was all about to change.

In Southern California and beyond, Phelps is known as a pioneer in the PR and marketing industry. He and his wife, Sylvia, took great pride in the steps they had taken to abolish the old-school department structure and create an organization in The Phelps Group that asks every employee to be completely centered on client satisfaction.

The firm was on a roll, adding new clients and being recognized as one of the best places to work in Los Angeles. And then Phelps learned that his wife, Sylvia, had brain cancer.

“I said, ‘You guys have to take care of the company, and I’ll take care of Sylvie,’” says Phelps, the 70-employee firm’s founder and CEO.

Sylvia Phelps ultimately lost her battle with brain cancer in November 2008. And while it by no means made her passing any easier to deal with, the fact that Joe’s team stepped up and kept the firm going while he was away provided him with great satisfaction.

“I wanted to have something that lives beyond me,” Phelps says. “When I was gone, they realized, ‘Hey, we’ve been doing it without Joe.’ People saw that this model actually does work. The key is to push the decision-making down to the front lines.”

When you choose to be more than the face of your company and become a magnet for every decision that needs to be made, you take away any sense of ownership and empowerment from your people. It’s why Phelps worked so hard to not be that and to make sure everyone at The Phelps Group understood how important their role was in the success of the business.

“They will relish the responsibility,” Phelps says. “They like to show how smart they are and how much they care. Like so many things in life, it comes down to trust. The more you trust them, the more they tend to trust you and the harder they want to work and care about the company. That trust has to permeate. You have to let people be as great as they can be. ”

Before you can do this, of course, you have to make sure you have people who can thrive in this kind of working environment. If Phelps had not initially identified and hired the right people to work for him, his time away from the firm could have produced much different results.

“I spend most of my time looking for good people,” Phelps says. “It’s staying out of situations where you have to hire someone right now. That means focusing on longer term planning where you’re finding people and putting them on the bench and slowly grooming them. Make it so you’re not starting at ground zero, because it takes a while to get to know someone.”

When you take a more methodical approach to hiring, you can take opportunities to see how compatible the job candidate would be with the people they would be working with. This is important at the hiring stage, but also down the road when you’ll be asking this person to then mentor a new crop of rookies.

“They have to demonstrate that they can trust other people and be responsible for the work and demonstrate that they can coach and help other people,” Phelps says. “It’s about putting other peoples’ needs before their own. If someone is really on fire to make the agency successful, it’s people that take themselves off the throne and are willing to help others, that’s what you’re looking for.”

Phelps feels fortunate that he’s been able to find those people and create a very successful firm.

“Once you find good people and you give them a good environment, then you have to get out of their way,” Phelps says. “You have to pry your fingers off the handle bars and let go.”

How to reach: The Phelps Group, (310) 752-4400 or

Share the spotlight

Joe Phelps does not have department meetings at The Phelps Group, because there aren’t any departments.

“If you have departments, you’re going to have department directors who feel threatened by some of their people,” says Phelps, founder and CEO at the 70-employee marketing agency. “You need to always be thinking about what the client needs.”

Phelps believes that when you take departments out of the equation and instead have your people center their efforts on the client, your activity is focused exactly where it needs to be.

One of the most effective things employees at The Phelps Group do to center on their clients is ‘The BrainBangers’ Ball.’ Employees meet once a week to talk about things ranging from new advertising campaigns to a new website design or a promotional concept for a new product or service.

Phelps is happiest when victories are celebrated throughout the firm and everybody feels like they played a part in helping a client.

“In most ad agencies, someone comes up with a big idea and they want to make sure everybody knows it was their idea,” Phelps says. “The norm here is for people to share the praise and give people credit for shining light on the idea.”