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Martin Woolley 

Cautionary Tales: Jonathan Durden's unique delivery of bad news

Cautionary Tales: Jonathan Durden's unique delivery of bad news

I'm not the only media agency leader that has some embarrassing stories up their sleeve about they've learned from failure, writes the What's Possible Group CEO

“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself”

… as Eleanor Roosevelt once said.

Regular Mediatel News readers may recall me trying to live by that dictum. A couple of weeks ago I shared how I hired my first PA so ineptly, I had to let her go 24 hours after she started.

Well, that struck a chord with the editor who has asked me to gather tales of embarrassing failure from other agency leaders. Many of whom, it turns out, are very willing to share.

I’ve been listening to quite a few crackers from around the media world and will share them with you over the coming months. It’s been a giggle already – I’m going to enjoy this. Hopefully you will too.

In the spotlight this time is Jonathan Durden (pictured, above). Creative media legend and the ‘D’ in ‘PHD’. Jonathan shared some great ones – some are in the bank for later – but the first is almost the opposite of mine.

When you look at the global behemoth that PHD is now, it’s easy to forget that it was a three-man start-up once.

Its trajectory was stellar (launch to sale in just six years) based largely on the special ethos the founders were passionate about: creativity, making PHD a happy workplace and treating people like adults.

But the founders hadn’t agreed who would take the inevitable tough decisions. So, when they got it wrong on an early hire, no one, in Jonathan’s words, was ready to “bite the bullet”.

They had hired a senior person and realised quite quickly that it “wasn’t right”. The individual was underperforming. Something had to be done.

So, did they nominate someone to have the difficult but necessary conversation? Tell the person it wasn’t working and negotiate an elegant exit?

Er… not quite.

Instead, they promoted said person… to the board!

The hope was the “extra responsibility would mean they sorted out their attitude and performance”.

Well, you know what happened next…

Inevitably, things didn’t improve. The eventual exit was messier and more painful by far. A much worse “bullet to bite”.

So, Jonathan realised this couldn’t go on. He decided he would have to toughen up in future. If he needed to have a difficult conversation, he wouldn’t shy away.

In fact, he developed his own style of letting someone go.  In his words: “I’d take them to lunch, and I’d start crying before they did. When they saw how upset I was, they’d usually feel sorrier for me!”

Well – whatever gets the job done Jonathan. Thanks for sharing!

Letting someone go is never an enjoyable experience for anyone involved, but as Jonathan’s story perfectly illustrates – the worst option is to put it off and hope things improve.

I’ve had to do my fair share over the years, and I’ve found it goes best if you:

  • Be prepared – work out what you want to say, take guidance from HR and prepare a package so you have it ready to offer straightaway
  • Get straight to the point when you meet
  • Remember there’s a human being in front of you – and treat their feelings as the most important consideration
  • Be as generous as you are able
  • Be honest and clear about your reasons
  • And most of all – it’s a small industry. Remember that more likely than not, you will be seeing each other again!

If you’d like to let the world learn from your howlers – email me at martinwoolley@whatspossiblegroup.com

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