When Sarah Eck-Thompson and her co-founder, Brook Jay, founded their company 11 years ago, they were doing it all. But, as All Terrain Inc. grew, they realized they had to start delegating more at the marketing company, which posted more than $5 million in 2008 revenue.
“It’s a balance on defining what you want the company to be and then allowing people to put their own spin on it in maybe a slightly different way than you would,” says the co-founder, president and chief operating officer of the company.
Smart Business spoke with Eck-Thompson about how to manage a growing company and create a casual culture.
Q. What advice would you have for another leader who is going through growth?
I am definitely an advocate of a leadership coach or just someone like an objective, third party that they can just sit down and talk to and talk through some problems or issues. Because it really helps give you some clarity on how you are communicating and how you are affecting other people in good and bad ways.
When we started our company, I didn’t ever really think of how we were communicating because we were still a really small group, so we were just going doing our work.
As we were growing and adding more people and different layers of management and stuff like that, it was really crucial for us to take a step back and look at that.
Q. How do you communicate feedback?
Our environment is pretty casual, so I would say it’s not a big issue.
(It’s) just calling (employees) into your office and saying, ‘Well, such and such didn’t go so well. Why don’t we take a look at what went wrong and how we would attack that differently in the future.’ …
The key to being a good leader is being accountable. It’s easy to jump out in front and claim the big wins and the big successes, but it’s also you need to acknowledge and appreciate people’s accomplishments and not jump in front of them and take credit for them.
At the same time, you need to, as a manager, take some ownership of the failures, too, and make sure that you use those as a way to learn from them. Look at them honestly and learn from them moving forward.
If someone has a failure of some kind or fails in their job before trying to say, ‘Oh, they screwed up,’ I like to look at it and say, ‘Well, did this person know what their job was? Did they have the skills and traits in order to fulfill that job and did we give them the resources to do it?’
Before saying, ‘This person isn’t right for this job,’ looking at the situation like, ‘Did we give them everything they needed to have to be successful and were they the right person to be successful?’
Q. How can a leader create a casual work environment?
It’s just the way the physical space is set up. We have workspaces where there are maybe four people working in a space together. We have dividers, but it’s not like a normal cube. It stimulates conversation between people.
So, just setting up the physical space. Our previous space had a pool table and Pop-A-Shot, which people didn’t actually play them very much, but it felt cool and more comfortable and casual.
We have, once a month, an innovation jam where we just invite the whole company to come and sit around on couches and just talk about cool stuff they’ve seen or they’ve done. It’s not totally free form. A lot of times, we will put forth a specific topic to have them thinking about.
It’s just time for everybody to step back from their work and sit around in a more social way and talk about cool stuff.
We will take ideas from the group if they want to establish something to do (that’s) extracurricular. Someone suggested having a yoga morning. So, we found a yoga instructor that would come in on Wednesday mornings and lead a yoga class. It’s cheaper than if they did it at a fitness studio or something like that, so we’re helping subsidize it a little bit. This is a way for people to get together. It’s been great because people from different teams from inside the office, different workgroups, are doing that together.
Q. What is the benefit to having a casual work environment?
It’s a difficult balance for sure. We like having a casual work environment because people are more social, there are definitely a lot of friendships that have emerged through it.
I think people feel like they can speak openly and there is a lot of trust. So, the balance is that, as we grow, we also need some more structure and systems in order to just manage the workflow and provide a feeling of stability inside the company, as well.
We employ a lot of younger people, so having a more social, casual work environment, I think stimulates a lot of creativity and camaraderie.
We really encourage our staff to be active and try to locate emerging trends. We encourage people to do extracurricular things and arts or culture because it really helps. Being out there and seeing what’s happening in some of these cultural and artistic communities really helps us build better programs for our clients and infusing new trends into our programs.
How to reach: All Terrain Inc., (312) 421-7672 or www.allterrain.net