What does it take to keep a mature, international design consultancy relevant and successful? And how do you respond when your route to future success is challenged?
I recently spoke with Michael Sheridan of Sheridan and Co to find out. He set up the business 31 years ago with his wife Julien. They now employ 80 staff in London, New York and Shanghai studios. Like many businesses, they had their best ever year in 2007, then in 2008 hit ‘the wall’. It’s been tough work for the last five years but they’re seeing the results with growth now on par with pre-recession levels both in UK and US markets.
Key to re-energising the business was their approach to issues around leadership, culture and succession. Michael shared some aspects of his story, offering a candid point of view on their journey and what they encountered along the way.
In terms of leadership, making sure the senior management were taking roles that played to their strengths was key. Michael is an ideas person. But by his own admission he wasn’t the right person necessarily to make them happen. He needed someone to take his ideas off him pretty quickly and move them forward. This person was Julien and she brought with her a greater focus on order and structure. As chairman, Michael conjures the broad idea and as chief executive Julien (along with her team) makes it happen. Michael puts the success down to the two things happening together. The roles do need to be clearly defined and adhered to. When Julien returned to the business there were, initially, some problems with overlap, and a lack of clarity around where each other’s roles started and ended. Michael says, ‘The hardest part was not doing what I had been doing for 20 years before but thinking and reacting by steering the questions to the right person.’ This was ultimately resolved last year by an unexpected absence from the business by Michael. ‘During this time, the overlaps were eliminated and the hand-over transition accelerated exponentially.’
Having taken time away from the business to raise their family, Julien initially returned in 2009 as communications director. She started by looking at the language of the business and how they expressed their culture. The main output of this was a culture statement, summarised by the word CHARM: standing for Creativity, Honesty, Attitude, Relationships and Manners. These assets became the code for expected behaviour by which they communicated with each other, with their customers and other stakeholders. Having a clear definition of their culture was a useful signpost that helped to determine which ideas happened and which didn’t. Before Julien came back they had already undertaken a permanent initiative to make their London office work harder. This involved moving from a third-floor Soho office to a shop space in Marylebone and re-naming this as ‘The Study’. This doubled as an event space in the London studio that acts as a pop-up laboratory . An example of a great idea that lacked commitment; however, under Julien’s management has given rise to a continuous programme with event initiatives such as The Little Shop events, which bring clients to the London office to test study and refine the retail experience. ‘It shows we are able to do things in our own right and not just when asked by their clients,’ Michael says. ‘Moreover it shows we are capable not just of coming up with ideas but indeed seeing them successfully through to completion’. Overall the work on their culture has lead to a ‘believing, reenergised senior management, which infects the rest of the team’.
Michael was chief executive prior to Julien returning to the business. The succession plan made Julien the chief executive and took Michael from chief executive to Chairman. This freed him up to concentrate on broader idea, with Julien taking the implementation role as chief executive. The succession plan also brought their sons Freddie and Bertie into the business. For Michael the change in roles required some adjustment. ‘I notionally agreed to the change in roles, at first not knowing that I needed to behave any differently,’ he says. Realising that a change would be necessary, he looked into what a chairman role should look like. They also brought in some external advisors, including a high-growth mentor, and during Freddie’s induction, a life and sales coach. These helped to clarify their goals, motivation and identities, and helped factor home, work and family into the mix. The process of working with external advisers helped them to see what changes they needed to make in their work and home lives going forward. After a six-month process they found that things were working much more smoothly and many of their initial frustrations had melted away. ’I’m now in a chairman role that enables me to use my 30 years-plus of active experience to develop new tools, techniques and assess new technologies by standing back just far enough to have a sense of the relevance of market changes in terms of how these may affect the agency. This new direction has also led me into new opportunities – most recently a joint venture with Leicester University as chairman of a new company bringing eco material innovations to market. ”
What questions might this prompt for other design business leaders? Here are some to ponder around leadership, culture and succession.
Where are your strengths? Are you the doer or the thinker? Where do these skills sit in your business? If they are skills missing, how might you go about bringing them in?
What would happen if you removed yourself from the business? How would you create an enforced but controlled absence? What would you need to put in place to ensure that the change happened and kept the business stable?
How does the culture you have match the reality? When was the last time you reviewed it? Who would need to be in the discussion?
How do you demonstrate your expertise outside of client work? What initiatives do you have that are an expression of your culture and benefit your clients? What is missing?
When do you think about the future and the people required to create it? What do you need to start thinking about and what are the factors involved for you? Who do you talk to outside of the business? What opportunities do you have to talk about the future with an objective outsider?