How can you successfully make a leadership change?
When your organization changes its leaders, it’s crucial to communicate the change to clients and team members in the right way…
In this episode, Tiffany Sauder shares her own leadership change story.
As the CEO at Element Three, Tiffany recently implemented a President so she could achieve her goal of spending more time with her family.
She’s here to provide insight on how leaders can prepare for such a change, including:
- Communicating the “why” behind the “what”
- The most common mistakes about leadership change
- Building client confidence in a new leader
- Why most agencies don’t have succession plans
- And more
Mentioned in this episode:
Voiceover: This is Performance Delivered, Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success with Steffen Horst and Dave Antil.
Steffen Horst: Welcome to the Performance Delivered Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success podcast, where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host Steffen Horst. The topic for today’s episode is leadership change. Here to speak with me is Tiffany Sauder, who is the CEO at Element Three, a full service marketing consultancy.
Growth of all kinds is the main theme and Tiffany’s life. You may have seen her name on lists such as the IBJ’s 40 Under 40, Junior Achievement’s Best and Brightest, and Krannert’s Burton Entrepreneurship Award. Under Tiffany’s leadership Element Three appeared on the Inc. 5000 six times. In addition to being the CEO at Element Three, Tiffany is an investor, podcaster, and board member. Tiffany, welcome to the show.
Tiffany: Thank you so much, Steffen. Great to be here.
Steffen: Well, thank you so much for joining us. Because you know, based on what I read you’re doing you seem to be a very busy person. So thanks for kind of cutting out this half an hour to talk to me today. Now, before we start talking about today’s topic, tell our listeners a little bit more about yourself. How did you get started in your career? And what led you to where you’re currently with Element Three and all your other activities?
Tiffany: Yeah, sure. Well, thanks for having me, again. I’m a small town kid that grew up in, you know, a small town in Indiana. And I always dreamed of the big city. I got a finance degree because I grew up in a very high business acumen household. And I knew if I understood business, I’d have a lot of options in my career.
And I started out in finance, but then started to understand a lot of the thinking patterns in finance were starting to find their way into marketing. I’ve been in marketing almost 20 years. And so email marketing and digital marketing, as we see it today, all the data was really starting to become part of the marketing conversation.
And so my skill set in finance and knowing how to do pivot tables and understand Excel, and how to interpret trends suddenly became a really interesting skill set in the world of marketing. So I leapt from, I made the leap from corporate finance into marketing and bought a small little agency in my hometown here of Indianapolis, really, with the goal of saying how do I help businesses grow.
I love the left brain, right brain mix of marketing, where there’s this quantitative part of how we can really understand the data and what’s happening, but there’s still a gut instinct. We’re still marketing to human beings, and they’re still this highly intuitive part of the creative process. And that left brain right brain aspect of marketing just drew me in.
So it was kind of that premise, ever so loosely, that I jumped into the agency world, and just started to understand the language of marketing, the business of the agency space, how to run a services company, how to build culture, how to attract talent, how to be excellent, and service clients in a way that we like having impact. And we’re really, really proud of it.
So we’re almost 20 years into the journey now. Along the way, my husband and I have four daughters, ages 14 to two. And my husband has a gigantic career. He was an Ivy League athlete. And I don’t say that to brag on him, though I do brag on him often. But just to say we’re a very high octane household.
There’s a lot of expectation of excellence. My husband and I both have really big dreams, individually in our careers and also together as a family. And so it’s been a story of building our family and our careers on the exact same timeline. And figuring out how to pursue excellence in an industry that doesn’t attract a lot of outsiders into it.
It doesn’t attract a lot of innovation necessarily. You become your creative director who becomes an agency owner or a designer or a developer. And I was a business person who said how do I bring what I know about business, learn marketing beside my colleagues and turn it into a business that we’re really proud of?
Steffen: Wow, that sounds like you jumped really into the deep end without much experience in a marketing world when you went to Element Three.
Tiffany: That’s 100% true. I didn’t even take a marketing course in college, it probably would have served me I don’t know. I have learned best in the laboratory of life. I was a good student in the sense of I got good grades, but I don’t know that’s actually where I learned the best. I kind of knew how to like play the game to get grades, but I learned the best by just like shoving me off the deep end and putting me out there. Like figuring it out, talking to people and being a problem solver.
Steffen: Going on a journey with a very steep learning curve basically.
Steffen: Yeah, that makes total sense. That makes total sense. Now, where you are now, you’re about 50 employees with Element Three. You told me you recently put a president in place. Up to now you kind of literally handled everything that kind of, you know, when you’re the CEO ends up on your table. What made you decide to bring someone else in alongside you to take certain parts off your desk?
Tiffany: Yeah, well, one of my observations about the agency world is that too often, they don’t have good succession plans in them. The founder or the principle, runs as hard as they possibly can for 20 to 30 years. At the end of it, they’re like, oh, crap, I don’t have an amazing succession plan. And so they may cobble something together, but nobody’s really been groomed for the role, and they’re not around to create a really long transition.
And I didn’t want that to happen to the agency. I didn’t want that to happen to our culture, I didn’t want that to happen for our clients. I just really didn’t want that fate. And so I was very conscious of that. For the whole time, I feel like I’ve been in this industry and started to realize those giants that were in the business when I got into it 20 years ago, I mean, two thirds of them aren’t players in the market anymore, and they washed through.
And if you’re not owned by one of the great big giants, these like locally, independently owned agencies go as the principal goes. If the principal’s in their prime the agency’s in their prime. If the principal is sort of not in it anymore, because they’re financially secure, or their family goes in a direction, or whatever it looks like, then so goes the agency.
And I wanted to prove to myself that we could build a business that could sustain itself, whether I was here or not. So it’s been an objective I think of mine for a really long time. The other thing that is part of my own story, and I found other people can relate to this a little bit, too, is like I said, we have four kids. And I told myself, when my kids were young, I wanted to really work my face off. Like we had nannies. I could control their environment.
I say there’s caretaking and heart taking of kids, when they’re younger, that caretaking bucket is a lot fuller, and you’re not doing quite as much heart taking. I have two teenagers now. And it’s a high heart taking environment of parenting where they, you know, do a lot of the caretaking themselves. And so I wanted to be present when it came to the heart taking part of their lives. As I shared, my husband has a really big career.
And I knew, as our kids got into travel sports as their own, you know, agendas for time and places they need to be and friends and influences started to get more diverse, I wanted to be really present to be there for them. And it wasn’t possible for me to do that if I was running a fast growing agency at the pace and energy that it required when I was quote unquote, younger. I’m almost 43 now.
So I told myself when my kids got to middle school, I wanted to not be as chained to my calendar, you know. You’re in the services business, you understand if there’s client calls, you have to be ready. And being able to be flexible for them was almost impossible, when I was really client facing.
And so I had that objective kind of pulling me as well to say if I want to be president for this stage of their lives, I’m not going to be able to play the same role in the agency, if I really still want it to be a professionalized operation that’s growing and pushing, versus it sliding into a lifestyle business. Which oftentimes can happen in the agency space as well.
So those are kind of two keystone forces for me to really say this is an important piece of working towards identifying a president that can run the business and have all of our executive team report to them. That was an important part of empowering that person. So that it wasn’t like, you know, I was actually still running it because everybody was reporting to me. It had to be somebody that was able to gain the respect of a really, really experienced senior team that had come here really for me. So those are all my words.
Steffen: Interesting. Now, when you made a decision that you want to bring that person in, that president in. How did you go about identifying the right candidate? Because there are obviously several elements that have to be taken into consideration. Does the person fit into the culture? What’s their experience? As you just said, is that person being seen by the existing leadership as kind of that leader that can take the helm and kind of steered the agency in the right direction and continue the growth path?
Tiffany: Yeah, I was very fortunate in that the individual who’s the president of the agency today. His name is Kyler. He was an internal candidate. So he started here when he was like, 22 years old. He’s worked beside me for a decade. And some people will look at that and say, like, well, that has to be easier then. They already knew your culture. Tiffany, you had a great relationship with them. That’s true.
But he also was like fresh out of college when he started here. And so his ability to be able to work through literally every level of the organization to the place where he’s now leading it. And people who were all along the ways, either his superiors or his peers, now become people who are reporting to him is a just a different journey and hard of a different flavor, I’ll say.
But if somebody listening to this is saying, hey, I have a leadership void I need to fill. I’ve got a role on my executive team. I’ve got the same situation, Tiffany, where I want to hire somebody to run the day to day of the business, or a big division or an acquisition that you’re making where you need leadership. The most important thing and I know you’ve heard this over and over is that if the culture is a fit, the rest of it can be taught.
Kyler and I had had the advantage of spending an enormous amount of time together. But if I was bringing somebody in from the outside, I would spend an enormous amount of time with them. I would get them in social situations. I would want to meet with them with their spouse. I would want to take them to dinner parties where they didn’t know anybody. I want to see the way that you behave, the way you react, the way you carry yourself.
Do you introduce yourself to strangers? Do you stay in the corner and stick by me the whole time? What things are you bringing up to talk about? How are you reacting to a bad day? I would want to try to catch you in a natural environment, not an interview process. Because that’s when you see people’s tics.
That’s where you see people in the way that like what’s in their hearts in the way that they behave. I’m a very culture lead leader. But we’re a very culture lead company. And if I got that right, I knew the organization would be patient with his competency on the X’s and O’s of building the operations and making strategic pivots and all those kinds of things.
People will be very patient and follow you for a very long time, if the core values are completely locked and loaded. So that would be my encouragement is spend as much time as you can with them in a lot of different situations to figure out what their like DNA is inside, not in this contrived environment of an interview.
Steffen: Yeah. Interesting what you just said. You actually answered my next two questions that I had jotted down here. Thinking about getting that person outside of kind of the normal interview process, outside of the role of sitting in a room or on a zoom call and talking about what you experience is, etc, and really seeing how they react in real life.
I think that’s something that I think, is really important. Because you can’t gain that, you can’t kind of put like a sales face on in that situation. You just have to be yourself, when you’re, as you said, at a party or at a conference or wherever you are with that person, right. You just, you will be yourself because that’s how you will have to react in that situation. So I love that approach. Now, how did you prepare your company for the transition?
You know, they’ve seen you at the helm for almost 20 years. And kind of now they’ve seen the company grow, they know what to expect from you and how you lead. How did you prepare the rest of the company that, you know, what, I’m in the process of kind of stepping a little bit aside. Probably still maintain the oversight, but I will have someone else that really runs the day to day.
Tiffany: I think the mistake that we make is that we only tell our teams what and not why. I have the advantage of working with a group of people who not only, I think, respect me, but they want the best for me. And so when I was able to tell the company why I was making these changes, like literally like, guys, I’m a mom, and I want to be able to be at home and my kids get off the bus. And here’s why that’s an important part of my life experience as a mom.
And how I want to be able to create opportunities for people and the opportunity for Kyler to be able to be a president at 32 years old and have the opportunity for ownership and to change his own, you know, family financial tree, like that’s about creating opportunity for somebody that they care a lot about.
Those became reasons for them to want to go on this ride with us. And it wasn’t just what was happening. Kyler is becoming president. But it was about why it was happening and helping them understand this is, you guys all have things you want in your life too, and change is a constant part of what we’re building what we’re doing and about life. And I also know that I really love the beginning of things.
The like, insane jump, who would do that? Are you kidding me? Like nobody, you know, no city needs another agency. Like why would you go into that business, Tiffany? You know, none of them sell. There’s all kinds of reasons that people have told me why this was just a terrible career choice, you know, and I love it. And we’ve done a great job at it. And we have a company that we’re so proud of. And I’m just really good at the like, first leap.
And so I didn’t know what else I would go do. But I knew that I needed space to be able to take the first leap again, in other areas. And, again, I told the company, I don’t know what I’m going to do, I’m not going away. But I have to create space for Kyler to lead. I’m a huge presence, everybody’s used to me.
So being away is part of me making space for him to be able to lead well. So I mean, I’m still in the office, one to four days a week kind depending on what’s going on with everything else. So it’s not that I’m not here at all, but is a very different pace for me here at the agency than it was a couple of years ago. With a lot of intention.
So I think that’s the mistake we make. Is we just tell people what’s happening. Kyler is going to be president. If I hadn’t told them why and how I also think that’s really good for them. Because by the way, he’s done a better job by every metric than I did, then they don’t know why to buy in. And so I think that’s an important piece of it.
Steffen: I would assume it also motivates the rest of the company. To see someone within their own ranks, kind of moving up through the ranks, and then now leading the agency, I mean, that’s a great story for everyone that comes on board. And for everyone that is already there, right.
Because it’s so different to hiring someone from the outside that comes in and takes the position. Now, that actually is a question I have here. Did you ever think about someone external, or when you made the decision that you wanted to step back, you already saw Kyler being the person that can take over from you?
Tiffany: I wasn’t opposed to looking at the outside. But I think for us, from the very first, you know, like day, that he spent at Element Three, he had always been as interested in the business of what we were doing as in the work, you know, sort of the marketing work that we were doing. So it was a very natural curiosity for him. He also grew up with a very entrepreneurial father.
We have that in common. And so I think there’s like this head start understanding that you get because literally, since you were like, 12, you were talking about profit and loss statements. So like, there’s this intellectual headstart that you don’t realize you have, but you do.
And so I think that was a, we’ve kind of found kindred spirits in that. I think it can be done successfully by bringing somebody in from the outside. But I suspect if I had gone that direction, the overlap may have needed to be longer than what he and I had to do, because it was an internal candidate.
Steffen: So you already said that, you know, you nowadays are between one and four days a week in the office. You stepped back. How do the two of you work together today? And then kind of what was your transition period from, you know, Kyler, I want you to be the president and this is how we’re going to do it over the X amount of months, to kind of get you fully on board and fully responsible and everything so that I can step out.
Tiffany: Yeah, it took about nine to 12 months to fully transition everything, and I’ll kind of talk about it in categories. I’d say there were three major areas of responsibility for me, maybe four, and I still maintain one of them. The first area of responsibility was being the direct report for the executive team.
Managing their goals, having their one on ones, helping them complete their rocks and key initiatives. Being a sounding board, kind of strategically steering the ship. That was what we handed off first. And I think that was a good choice, because it set the tone that we were very serious about kind of the locus of control going from me to him, as it related to the day to day operations and executing the business plan of the current year.
So that was the first thing that we transitioned, gave him about, I don’t know, three to six months to get that under his belt, get absorbed into his calendar, you know, all the things that are required with taking on six new direct reports. The second thing that then he took on was sales and marketing reported to me that was like my baby.
You know, controlling revenue is a really key part of the pie. You know, we’re a high fixed costs business. And so if revenue was rolling, you’re making money. If it stops, you lose money quickly. And so I had a tight control over that. Took a lot of pride in that. Loved participating in that.
And that was the second thing that I handed off to him or that he took over. And again, giving him just time to digest that from a time and context perspective. That was about three months. And then the last thing that he took over what I’ll say, like company communication. We run on EOS. And so we have really strong communication cadences with a quarterly kickoff.
We have monthly financial reviews, we do open book financials. And so running those meetings, at any time, it was like, hey, the company is talking to the organization, I had always been the primary voice on the microphone with those meetings. And that was the last thing that I handed over to him.
And again, it’s not really so much that he couldn’t have done it from day one, but it gave him time to get his feet under him. It wasn’t like all these things landed on his lap on day one. The company communication is the easiest for me. And so it was a thing that I could like keep on, kind of keep control of and it not be a big energy waste, or like energy take for me.
As far as how we work together today, we have one meeting once a week for 90 minutes, that is kind of a don’t miss for both of us. We go through the key scorecard items of the organization and the key issues that he needs my perspective on. But it’s always his final decision. And then we collaborate on more longer term things.
Things that are 18 months to five years out. That’s really where I’m spending my energy thinking about, creating relationships around, opening up networks, figuring out how we become thought leaders. Those are the things that I’m working on on his behalf into the marketplace.
Steffen: Now, you talked about how you communicated things internally in regards to, you know, Kyler taking over as the president. How did you manage communication outside with clients? Obviously, you know, as the CEO of a company, you are kind of the face of the company, you know. Companies want to work with you probably because you’ve assembled a great team, but also because of you. Because of your thoughts, your opinions and everything else. How did you manage that element?
Tiffany: Yeah, we had a very intentional communication plan for that. We started obviously, with our employees, and then I made personal phone calls to our largest customers, and helped them understand that this was a strategic move, that we were doing very intentionally for the long term viability, growth, energy, all of that of the agency.
That it wasn’t me running from something. It wasn’t me stepping back from something. It was really about, hey, we’re at a different place. It needs a different kind of leadership. And here’s why he is the right person and all the context he has for you know who we are, and how we’re going to continue to get better for them.
So I made some personal phone calls, I had a personal letter that went out to our whole client base that came from my personal email, it wasn’t like a fancy HTML email on purpose, I didn’t want it to feel like they were being marketed to. I wanted it to feel like intimate. And so I sent out an email, and then we had some, you know, social posts to our network more broadly. And then he updated it on his individual social outlets as well.
So I wanted it to be a celebration of him, of the next phase of our business and not any air of what’s happening over there. None of that. That’s not what was going on. And I knew if we allowed there to be a vacuum that that’s part of maybe what would bubble up. And I wanted people to understand this is a celebration of our success, and the opportunity that we get to name a leader that has the prospective, the talents, and the cultural aptitude to be able to take us into the next 10 years.
Steffen: How did your clients react?
Tiffany: They were thrilled for him. They were excited for me. And I think it’s the same thing. You know, it was about telling our clients why as much as what was happening. They’re humans too. They have dreams, they have things that they want out of life. And they were like, Tiffany, that’s amazing that, you know, you have options.
That’s amazing that you get to go spend your time a little bit differently. They know exactly where to find me. And, you know, I was sure to loop back and make sure we were still doing a great job, but I knew we would be. And he had, I would say we had kind of like, silently shifted some responsibility, probably four months before we did the public announcement. And so I was able to say like, this is really how we’re operating.
So you’re gonna feel very little difference. He’s already really running it. And so they felt no disruption. And again, I have the advantage of working with clients that not only I think respect us but really are cheering for us as people. And so they were excited for our family, for me personally, and excited for the agency and for Kyler.
Steffen: When you’re leading or when you’re building a company from the ground up, and at some point decide, you know what, I want to step out. It must be hard to let go and then kind of to see someone else to take over your I don’t know, if you want to call a baby or whatever you want to call it, right. How did it feel for you to, at the end of this transition period, you know, the end of the 9, 12 months, really letting go of those three areas you mentioned, and really stepping out of kind of the day to day part?
Tiffany: Yeah, it was weird. I think that’s the best word. It just felt really uncomfortable to like, not be in the know, on every possible thing that was going on. And that was the right course of things. But there’s almost this weird sense of like, feeling kind of left out in the party that you put together. Even though that was the plan. And that was the directive, it was still weird. Like I was kind of on the outside looking in.
The other thing was like this real fidgety discomfort of not, like having so many tasks to do. Before I had really figured out what next look like for me and how it was going to fill, you know, the 20 to 40% of my week that was suddenly open, because I didn’t have those responsibilities. I was like, really uncomfortable with the silence. And that’s where I think that leaders go wrong is to fill the discomfort, they go back to what was comfortable.
And they go back to, you know, sending the emails they were sending, they go back to wanting to be put on the email announcements. They go back to like, that place where there was like these dopamine hits of being needed. Instead of just like sitting and like, oh, man, I don’t know what exactly what I’m supposed to do.
I don’t know totally what to do with this, like, three hour opening on my calendar, because I used to be driven through it so hard. And I think that discomfort, we’re like addicts almost. And we go back to the original drug. And I’m grateful that I had, I think there’s some good mentors that helped me see that that discomfort was an important part of the process, for me to make room for Kyler.
And also just an important part of the creative process for my mind to be like, what else do I want to do? I haven’t been able to even think about that for almost 15 years. 85% of my professional career. What do I want to do? Where do my talents create value? And so it took a while to figure that out and to feel confident again, and to realize that my identity is not defined by, you know, doing a great brand project for a client.
My identity is not defined by people knowing that I’m the president of Element Three. And some of those things being taken away, helped me more strongly identify with being a mom, more strongly identify with just being me, and not these roles that I play.
Steffen: Great. Well, Tiffany, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you about, you know, leadership change, and especially since it comes kind of from a personal experience. And thank you so much for sharing so many great information about advice in regards to how to go through that entire process. If people want to find out more about you and Element Three, how can they get in touch?
Tiffany: Yeah, Element Three, our website is the best place. It’s elementthree.com and three is spelled out. And you can understand the work we do, the clients we work for, and some of the culture that we’ve built. If you’re interested in connecting with me personally, tiffanysauder.com. S a u d e r is where you’ll find my podcast.
I have a newsletter that is really targeted towards high achieving two career families, which is, I think, a really unique perspective my husband and I have on the world. And so lucky to share some of our advice and tips and hacks for keeping a sane personal life so that you can say yes to lots of big things in life.
Steffen: Perfect. Well, thanks everyone for listening. If you like the Performance Delivered podcast, please subscribe to us and leave us a review on iTunes, or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphonic Digital you can visit us at symphonicdigital.com or follow us on Twitter at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again and see you next time.
Voiceover: Performance Delivered is sponsored by Symphonic Digital. Discover audience-focused and data-driven digital marketing solutions for small and medium businesses at symphonicdigital.com.