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Only take in that which makes you stronger

Last week I was talking to one of our new PF team members about what she’s been learning, even in her first few weeks with us, about the PF culture. 

As a team we’ve been reading “No Rules Rules”, about the Netflix culture and how they’ve maintained it through a period of rapid and highly innovative growth. We chose this book because PF, too, has been growing rapidly - not quite at Netflix levels, but for us it’s significant. We’ve nearly doubled the size of the team in the past year, our sales leaped by over 40% while our profit margin doubled, and we’re aware there’s more coming. My book is coming out early next year, with pre-sales in October, our new website and online course in the autumn as well...and pandemic is still sort of with us, with adjustments being made all the time, so really the only thing that stays the same is change. 

As we all read this book, there was a lot to digest about the Netflix culture, and compare it to the PF culture. It’s equally challenged us and caused us to pause. Could we do more here, or change what we’re doing there? With some things we read, we identified we don’t want to be that way. Our culture is more about curiosity, and marketing therapy, and patience over the long run - so the Netflix culture of moving fast and almost breaking things on purpose to see what happens, or giving instant, direct, “I think” feedback doesn’t fit us as well. It fits us better to say “I wonder” or “I’m curious about” or “How does that show up for you?”

So as this team member and I were talking about how to read this book, what to take in and what to discard, what to learn from and what to adapt, it struck me that building and maintaining a culture is rather like the sword of Gryffindor. 

Harry Potter summary here for those less familiar. (Includes spoilers.)

The evil lord Voldemort has protected his soul by splitting it into seven parts, and encasing these into items called ‘horcruxes’. A locket, a ring, a journal, a goblet - each one contains a portion of this evil soul and therefore must be destroyed, if they have any hope of ultimately destroying the dark wizard himself. Harry & co are seeking to find these horcruxes so they can then destroy them, but even as they seek for the items, they still have no idea how these items can be destroyed. As dark magical objects, it won’t be simply a matter of smashing the item on a rock or dropping it into the sea. 

Hermione is reading (as she is wont to do), and suddenly comes across something which tells her the sword of Gryffindor “only takes in that which makes it stronger”. A magical object of goblin-made silver, rust and dirt have no effect on the blade. It repels things which would weaken it; and takes in and retains anything which would strengthen it. Hermione suddenly remembers in their second year, Harry killed a basilisk (great big poisonous snake) with that very sword. And that the snake’s venom has the power to destroy horcruxes. 

So (bear with me, we’re almost there!!) the sword of Gryffindor would have “taken in” the horcrux-destroying element of the basilisk venom, WITHOUT taking in any of the poisonous nature which would destroy a normal sword. 

It took in only that which made it stronger. 

It rejected the rest. 

Back to PF culture. As we read No Rules Rules, or watch a business documentary, or consider applicants who want to work with PF, or think about the changes we will or won’t make: we need to be the sword of Gryffindor. We take in that which makes us stronger. 

When we consider someone who wants to work with PF, we look equally at their skills AND their fit with the PF values. If we were to take someone who had all the skills but wasn’t quite a values fit, we’d slowly over time begin to be weakened in our culture by someone who didn’t approach things the PF way. And if they were someone who fit all the values and we enjoyed their company and would love to spend time with them, but they didn’t have the skills and experience to do the work, the quality of our work would be weakened if we took them in. So we don’t. They may be the most amazing person and we’d love to have them around - but we’ll only take in that which makes us stronger. 

The same applies to: 

  • Choosing the clients we work with. Will they stretch us, give us new ideas, help us learn even better how to help accountants who are getting more involved marketing? Or might they wear us down with a focus on getting results fast and a desire for marketing shortcuts? We’re considering more and more carefully who we’re best placed to serve (and who we are not), and much of that centres around education. The more we can help accountants understand and love marketing, the better the collaborative marketing relationship will be. And the stronger PF will be...which means the work we do for accountants is stronger, and everyone wins. That’s why our new website will push everyone towards the 12 week Accelerator group. We take in accountants who are willing to try, experiment, learn, contribute, collaborate. And when they join, they too become stronger. (Their own sword!) 
  • The language and terminology we use. Netflix talks about mistakes and failures, and embraces them instead of fearing or avoiding them. At PF, we don’t fear failure, but we focus more on the learnings we get from them. So instead of a #failures channel in slack, we create a #learnings channel. The same is true for giving feedback and sharing opinions. Instead of “I think” and “that’s wrong” and “that won’t work”, at PF it’s more “I wonder” and “I’m curious about” and “how might we…?” 
  • Playing the comparison game. Other businesses, other leaders, other companies. We don’t have to feel threatened or small next to a company who does things differently: we can appreciate who they are and how they’re growing and what they do, and take in to PF only that which will make us stronger. The rest we can say is not for us, because although it helps that other company, it would actually weaken us because of who we are. 
  • Prioritising ideas and actions. There are so many things we could be doing. Which one do we do first? How do we decide? What do we drop entirely and what do we park for later? Again we consider what kinds of things will make our business stronger, and we take those in. We spend time on those and they stretch us (and sometimes we groan or swear or bang our heads against the table a bit), but we know it’s going to make us stronger. 
  • Identifying learnings from mistakes. We’ll still make mistakes or do things which don’t work out. When we take in that which makes us stronger, it means we review our mistakes and take in the learning, and let the frustration or loss go. We spent a lot of money on building a web app based on a very small element of our PF way and how we help clients. After two years we realised in order to really make the most of this app, we’d need to completely start again (losing all the money and time we’d invested thus far, plus spending a whole lot more in the coming years). In light of the impact it would have on the business, and looking at some of the other projects we could invest in (as well as growing the team), we decided to set it aside, and stop working on it. The app would have made us a little stronger, but at such a cost (of time and money) that it wouldn’t be a net strength for the company - at least right now. We take in - this year - that which will make us stronger. Perhaps in a future year we’ll revive that project, and perhaps not. Each time we consider it, we look at how or whether it will make us stronger. 
  • Involving more of the team. One of the priorities we’ve had for the past few years has been a conscious focus on distributing the thought leadership amongst the whole team - not centring it entirely on me personally. This is a long, deep, intense process requiring countless hours and messages and trainings and videos and discussions and questions and trials and errors and wins and learnings. It has meant changing the way we do things from the very start of a prospect conversation. We’ve created and implemented transition plans. I’ve started a PF mentoring programme for the Client Marketing Managers - and they’ve created their own for the team members they mentor. I’ve started my book, and we’ve created a DIY course. We are no longer centralising all this learning and knowledge in my brain: we are bringing it into the entirety of PF, and then delivering it via the (currently) 15 team members who make PF the agency it is, only one of whom is me. We take in new team members not simply to have more people and do more work: but we take in those who make us, collectively, stronger. More authoritative. More clear. More PF. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this phrase since that first conversation. I’ve realised I’m doing that in my personal life, too. 

The past year or so have been heavy, and the year or so before that were heavy for me as well. Trauma that needed to be dealt with, and then pandemic trauma on top of that. There are messages everywhere - books, videos, suggestions, ideas, questions - and it’s not possible to take them all in. It’s not helpful, either. Mentally, spiritually, emotionally: I take in that which makes me stronger. And the rest just...slides off. Is set aside. Doesn’t become a part of the me which moves through this world, and keeps moving through, with what I’ve taken in. 

What are you taking in which makes you stronger? Is there anything you need to let go of? 

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