Here at Smack Bang, staff hierarchy is about as welcome as a turd in a swimming pool.
The thing is, we have a leadership system that works seamlessly, whilst being free of hierarchy and egos. It’s one that is inclusive and where ideas can come from any employee and be considered as worthy as those of the directors. No-one has the big corner office, no-one has a morning coffee awaiting them on their desk, a gold plaque on their door (or a door for that matter) a box of cigars or a PA anticipating their every move in a short skirt and high heels (although we do have an EA who rocks a short skirt like a total bae).
For us, throwing hierarchy to the curb has been the ultimate uppercut to preventing a stiff workplace culture and encouraging our team to feel less like ‘staff’ and more like family.
Back in 2011, I got the Smack Bang party started with a nervous flutter in my belly, my very first ABN and a pocketful of dreams. I set out to build a design studio with a knack for storytelling, an eye for kick-ass design and a vision that sees meaningful brands making meaningful magic. But even back then, I knew that in order to create a thriving business, with drool-worthy designs, a collective of knock-out clients and a reputation like no other, we first had to create a place that was designed to foster greatness. A workplace where incredibly talented individuals are empowered to put their best work into the hands of great people, with unending support behind them and not a single micro-manager in sight.
So far, my team are my greatest achievement – they are a collection of some of the sharpest minds and brightest thinkers I’ve ever met. They are a bunch of the most committed, talented and treasured team who understand the vision of the business and bring their A-game to work every day. Although we have an insane workload, often working with 70 clients at any given time, each of them bring a unique skill and flair to the team, and they make going to work each day an absolute pleasure.
I pride myself on my team’s happiness and measure the success of my business on the health of our company culture. Whilst I love design, my mission is not to be the best design agency in the world (although, if anyone other than my mum would like to give us this trophy, I’ll happily take it), my mission is instead, to create the best, most enjoyable workplace in the world. I am constantly in pursuit of building a team that feels like a family. Over the last 8 years in business, I’ve begun to slowly refine and understand what ingredients make the perfect team and how to foster a community that thrives. Below are a few of the things I’ve learnt so far. None of these suggestions are particularly ‘revolutionary’ or ‘innovative’, but I hope they remind you of the things that are important to us, as bosses, and as humans.
Tell them you love them (way too often).
Not enough people realise the importance of treating your staff as invaluable. If you felt replaceable, with no real awareness of your impact in the business or your value to your team, would you come to work early with a smile on your dial and give the day your all? Heck no. You’d be on Seek in a flash looking for somewhere that treats you like the real MVP you are.
As a boss, it’s important to treat your employees like they make your business everything it is because, in reality, they do.
Hire like your life depends on it.
In a small or growing business, hiring the wrong people is as risky as a toupee in a tornado. I hire like my life depends on it because it does. And if that sounds dramatic, that’s because it is. Hiring the wrong person can throw your entire business off course, particularly if that role is customer facing, or even worse, a leadership position. If you hire right from the beginning, difficult conversations shouldn’t be difficult and the entire team will be lifted by the arrival of a new MVP.
I have a lot of faults but uncertainty is not one of them. I hire fast and hire with my gut. Generally, about 10mins into an interview I know if the candidate is a Smack Banger or not. How do I know this? I look for certain things, of course, but more than that, I tune in, listen to what they have to say (both verbally and physically), and listen to what my intuition has to say in return.
I look for grit and grace. I admire people who go about their day to day with a sense of tenacity and humility. Life’s certainly not easy but if you have the grit to keep going (even when EVERYTHING around you is screaming ‘give up this is too hard’) and the grace to accept whatever life throws at you, well that’s pretty admirable if you ask me.
I look for people who have the same fundamental values as the rest of the pack – people that are genuine, down to earth, have a zest for fun and are insanely passionate about what they do. We hire people with consideration for the differences in each other and those excited to embrace new ways of thinking.
I look for curiosity, patience and persistence. And awareness. Particularly self-awareness. I love people who are comfortable in their own skin.
I also look for those with the ability to have a wine and talk about anything, but not everything.
It helps if they’re happy, too. I believe that if you attack all situations with positivity and don’t take yourself too seriously, you will bring out the best in those around you.
If you want to know more about our hiring process, I’ve written a whole chapter on that in our Smack Bang Designs Ebook.
Be prepared to give, give and give.
Truth be told, leading a team is exhausting. Particularly when you’re an introvert like I am. A thriving team needs a leader who is both present and patient, someone who they can lean on in trying times or be lifted by in inspiring times.
This is both a blessing and a curse. As a leader, I love being responsible and available to help bring out the best in my team, but I also find it really hard to be constantly giving my energy away. Sometimes you’d just prefer to crawl into a hole and take tequila via intravenous, than front up and be there for another 15 humans, but the reality is, this is what you signed up to be the ringleader of your own circus.
We have a rule at Smack Bang that everyone is responsible for the energy they bring into our space. Why? Because energy is contagious, and what’s more, it’s 10 times more contagious when it’s coming from the ‘boss’.
Cultivate clear communication.
We conduct regular brainstorms (full of good humour, hot beverages and sometimes clear outcomes), where everyone is encouraged to throw in their two-bobs without risk of feeling silly or copping sideway glances. Communication without egos or attitude is the key ingredient to a team that feels like family.
We also provide three catch ups each year for each staff member with their manager. Together they share a cup o’ Joe and have a good ol’ yarn about how they’re enjoying their role, what they could be doing better and how they see the vision of the company developing. So much gold comes from these sessions.
Let them take the steering wheel.
Show me an employee who doesn’t love to take ownership of a project or initiative and I’ll show you a person I don’t want to hire. At Smack Bang, everyone has a seat and a steering wheel on our bus. We dish out responsibility like there’s no tomorrow and give everyone the opportunity to turn their ideas into reality, on their terms.
In my eyes, a leader who is constantly looking over the shoulder of their employees is no more than a babysitter. Afford your staff the freedom to breathe, empower them to lose the training wheels and step up, themselves. It might be a little rocky at first, maybe a grazed knee here or there but the learning curve and invested trust will be invaluable to take things up a notch with your team.
Be clear with your vision.
A great team has a common purpose and a clear vision. It’s not enough for me as a leader to communicate just the how and what, my team need to understand the why too. If you don’t create and communicate a unified vision, you haven’t provided a reason for your team to come together and put their whole hearts into it. With common objectives and a clear vision, your team is a cohesive unit rather than a flock of lost and vaguely related colleagues. At Smack Bang, we have weekly all-hands-in meetings to be sure that everyone is across both the day-to-day happenings of the company, as well as any big-picture plans or exciting new visions.
Be overtly grateful.
Wanna know my number one rule? Thank your employees. Like, every ****ing day (that word was ducking, obviously – right autocorrect?). I never leave the office without saying thanks to the team for the day’s work. The fact is, these hugely talented, hard-working and extremely good-looking individuals could choose to work at any establishment, and they’ve chosen mine!! What a g-damn honour. They are helping bring my dream alive, but more than that, each and every day they teach me something new and inspire me in some way or another. So, I make a point to say thank you whenever I can.
Sprinkle a bit of confetti as you go.
As a leader, you’re responsible for inspiring your team to do great things. You need to bring a little Kanye to the office, razz people up and sprinkle some confetti in your tracks. No-one but you is responsible for a camaraderie and office atmosphere that encourages and motivates everyone to lift their game.
Disclaimer: Just make sure to not go too crazy, as I have been known to do. I said a sprinkle of confetti, not a tsunami of outlandish ideas and caffeinated crazy that never gets implemented #guilty. (more about that here)
Be a team player.
I remember walking into a certain media HQ a few years ago and the experience has forever etched itself into my memory. There were rows upon rows of grey desks with staff (humans, believe it or not), sitting at their boring little cubicle desks, pumping out the work. And then over to the far right corner of the office was a glass room, overlooking the Sydney skyline. Within that over-sized office sat the CEO amongst an array of beautiful furniture, expensive paintings, soft furnishings, plants and a desk twice as big as the ones in the main room. As I went to say hi, I spewed in my mouth a little.
This is a public service announcement to anyone reading this, if I ever become this way inclined, please, please shoot me.
Sure, you might be the ‘boss’, but you are also a part of a team. I will never feel entitled to anything that my staff don’t have and will never ask them to do something that I’m not prepared to stop and do myself.
More on Smack Bang Designs
Tess Robinson is the founder of Smack Bang Designs, a creative design agency located in Sydney with distinctive creative direction, fresh ideas and a zest for originality. They work closely with businesses all over the globe, head to their site to have a peek and you’ll see a few beautiful brands that you’re familiar with!