What to do when times are tough

When things are going well, it's easy to keep employees happy and engaged, make snap decisions and create alignment across your organization. When you’re hitting your numbers, growing at a record clip each month, feeling the rush that comes with success, the hardest thing to do is stop and prepare for the inevitable time when those trends slow or reverse. Ultimately, every business will be faced with challenges that will test their resilience. The digital media world is no different, and many publishers are facing such challenges right now. Advertisers are cutting spend and evaluating their partners much more closely. Every dollar has become a dog fight. Facebook and Google continue to use their scale and data to absorb nearly every new dollar flowing into digital (not to mention tweak their algorhythms to the detriment of publishers). Changes in consumer behavior are straining the clicks = pageviews = impressions model.

Under this backdrop, it is more important than ever that publishers both large and small have processes in place so that employees can respond to difficult situations and make optimal decisions. Leaders at media companies must also be willing to discuss problems openly and address them head on. It is surprisingly difficult to filter out short term distractions and shiny objects and focus on the things that will create long term value.

Having worked at startups of various sizes, my opinion is that the single biggest contributor to all the negative things you hear about startup culture - from chaotic environments to high stress levels to directionless management - is an unrealistic set of goals. As soon as companies hit a high-growth stage, the prevailing belief is that they must continue to accelerate at the same or increasing rates in order to be successful. After all, they have multiple constituents to answer to: investors, boards of directors, employees. However, maintaining early stage growth rates indefinitely is nearly impossible. The only guarantee is that any pressure felt at the top will trickle down to all employees and manifest itself in a culture of infighting, blame and eventually burnout. This is not to say that the goals should be layups. They should be aggressive but achievable.

Numerous studies show that what employees want these days more than anything is to feel a sense of purpose, that they have a voice and that they are learning and growing every day. Assuming their compensation is adequate and they have a manager they can trust, focusing on employee growth and education can be one of the most impactful things a company can do. Establishing a clear vision and connecting the mission to the work employees are doing every day will go a long way to create that sense of purpose and meaning. By making weekly or bi-weekly 1 on 1 meetings between employees and managers sacred and using that time to discuss goals, priorities and challenges, the employee will feel heard and appreciated. The manager should spend at least 80% of this time listening. By investing in employees through training, conferences, and internal workshopping, they will be improving their craft which will give them a real sense of opportunity. It doesn’t have to be overly formal or expensive, but investing in your people can be game changing.

For publishers, one of the most difficult things to do is eliminate or forego something that is working and/or providing consistent revenue in order to address deeper underlying problems. Examples of this could be a traffic source that is providing a steady stream of users of dubious quality, or a monetization partner that compromises the user experience. The idea of removing these altogether can paralyze publishers from making decisions that will create more value over time. In these situations its important to play the long game and remember that most of the time, these types of businesses are the often the first to be challenged when sea change arrives. Taking one step back in order to take two or three steps forward is one of the hardest, but smartest things publishers can do.

When it comes to decision making, having a bulletproof internal process is absolutely critical in times of uncertainty or stress. If the boss or founder must make every important decision, the likelihood of bottlenecks and paralysis becomes extremely likely. Instead, empower top talent to solve problems autonomously and give them the tools to do so. Provide a framework for thinking about decision making and let them know that they will not be punished for their mistakes. When the going gets tough, if each employee knows that their manager and company leadership will have their back, they will be able to act swiftly and decisively to keep things moving in the right direction.