Guessing the future Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2007

One of Tony Quin’s favorite pieces of business advice is something he learned from his father, a British officer who spent four years of World War II in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

“He always said business is just like being a warrior,” Quin says. “You put your armor on, and you gird your loins to go out every day to fight. It’s quite an honorable thing to do because you’re fighting for what you believe is right. Hopefully, nobody gets killed.”

Quin has taken that philosophy to heart with IQ Interactive, a 75-employee digital advertising agency that is pushing the limits of broadband Internet with its groundbreaking Web site design.

Smart Business spoke with Quin, CEO and executive creative director of IQ Interactive, about why CEOs need to act with certainty.

Q: What are the most important skills a CEO needs to have?

A leader has to have a strong vision and has to be able to articulate it really well.

Because if everyone doesn’t think the leader knows where he’s going, then how are they meant to know where they are going?

Another important characteristic is having at least a semblance of certainty. Knowing where you’re going is important, but it’s also OK to change direction — as long as you’re doing it in the context of a plan.

Your employees are everything, and it makes people uncomfortable if you are reacting to your environment. When you’re predicting the future, obviously there’s no absolute certainty in that, but people do tend to gain confidence as your predictions come true.

Anybody who’s running a business is trying to guess the future. Your employees are relying on the CEO to be the best future-guesser around.

Q: How do you articulate that vision?

In regular meetings with the entire company, I reinforce our driving ideas. We try to get into an open and frank dialogue; nothing is off limits. Anybody can ask any question and get the truth.

When we get new employees, we want everybody singing from the same hymnal. You should be able to ask any of our employees, ‘What does IQ do? Where is IQ going?’ and get the same answer. So we work hard to ensure that’s the case.

It’s not about understanding by rote; it’s about getting them to understand it. I’ve done a number of videos, which we share with all of our new hires. They talk about everything from vision to values. That saves me the time of having to do that for every single person.

Q: What are some pitfalls CEOs should avoid?

The biggest one is you get out of touch with your people. You get so involved with the big picture stuff that you get out of touch with your people. The moment they feel like cogs in the machine, maybe your company needs cogs in the machine, but it doesn’t work in my world.

You have to feel accessible; you have to feel human. We have high expectations of ourselves, and we have high expectations of employees, but they’re not machines. We’re asking them to find the capabilities in themselves they don’t even know they have yet. We want our employees to be rising to their next level of their capabilities just as the company is. So they have to believe in themselves just as we believe in the company.

If you want loyalty and if you want enthusiasm and people’s creativity and drive and determination, you’re not going to get that by sitting in your ivory tower and saying hello to them at the company picnic once a year.

Q: How do you create a culture that reflects that?

Organizational culture is something that happens when you get the right balance between individual responsibility and rigorous process, which tends to tie people, give them less freedom. There’s a balance. You have to be careful not to put handcuffs on people.

Our culture comes from the nature of the people that we hire, the way we want them to interact with one another, and the freedom we give them to move out of their space.

We don’t want people who just put that one lug nut on the car and do that 3,000 times a day. We want people who understand how the whole car goes together and who feel free to go give a suggestion to the guy working on the wind-shield or the engine.

So, we encourage cross-disciplinary capabilities. We encourage technical people to be creative and creative people to be technical. It’s helpful and it empowers people.

The other thing about the culture is people need to see they can grow within it. They need to see that somebody comes in as a junior designer; if they do good work, they go to a senior designer, then they go to art director, then they go to senior art director, then they go to associate creative director, and so on.

HOW TO REACH: IQ Interactive, (404) 255-3550 or www.iqinteractive.com