What I Learned This Year #22: Joel Pilger

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That's Impossible
Unless you've worked in New York or LA within our industry, it may be difficult to appreciate the anomaly that is Impossible. You see, we do design, spots and promos for television. In Denver. Anyone who knows anything about our industry knows that's insane. But I'm a guy from Atlanta who grew up skiing here every spring break and when I decided to start my own company, I said, screw it [the conventional wisdom]. I was determined to live in Colorado and somehow figure it out.

"Figuring it out" is not an entirely unfamiliar story to most of you: it involved tons of hard work, learning, paying your dues, beating the odds, then lots more hard work and still more learning. For 15 years. No magic there, right?

2010 Was Different
But year 16 was different. Very different. We really beat the odds. It felt like for 15 years we've been busting our butts to build all the right pieces, then all of a sudden, this was the year they all started to fall into place.

Here are some specifics so you can see what I mean. For starters, this year Impossible tackled a whopping 201 projects that generated over 1,300 spots. We were honored among The Denver 50 and won several Best In Shows. We rebranded several national networks. We directed and produced national advertising campaigns. Our staff doubled in size to 22. We worked hard as hell. We had a blast.

What I Learned
I could write pages and pages of what I learned this year. Yawn. Let's press the skip ahead button on the remote. After all, what we really want to know is, "What was the one thing that you learned that made the biggest difference?"

Answering that is no small feat. There are so many ingredients that go into any successful business recipe, I can think of many. Like work ethic. Dedication to learning. Talent. Experience. Operations. Marketing and sales. Financial management. IT. Espresso.

After a lot of thought, if I had to boil down the most important thing I learned this year that made the biggest difference, it's something I've believed for a long time. But this year it was more relevant than ever. I'll sum it up this way:

If you're good at something, stop doing it.

What I mean here is that if you're a good designer, a good writer, a good project manager, a good anything, stop doing it. You should put it down. Let it go.

The Concept
Lest you think I'm being dramatic, let me illustrate this concept with a personal story.

Ten years ago I signed up for some high-level entrepreneurial coaching. One exercise had me write down all the activities it took to run my business. My list was comprised of (ugh) 32 different things. Yikes. One of them was literally "Keep the office clean / take out the trash." Sound familiar?

I then divided the list into four categories: those activities at which I was "incompetent," "competent," "excellent," versus those things that tap my "unique abilities." It was pretty easy to move my "take out the trash" activity into the competent box, and things like "bookkeeping" and "HTML" into the incompetent box.

The point of this exercise was for me to get really clear about what I could be great at versus what I needed to set aside. I'll assume we all agree that if you want to be satisfied, fulfilled, and making a difference in the world, you have to focus on your unique abilities.

It's Harder Than It Sounds
So here's the catch: remember that "excellent" category? Those were the things that I was really good at. My highly-paid expert coaches said I had to let go of those things. And as much as I wanted to resist, I knew they were right. So I started discovering my unique abilities and focusing on doing just those things and somehow, some way, delegating everything else. And no, it wasn't easy. Hell no.

What I learned in 2010 was that leading and growing a company through crazy times like these, letting go of what you're good at was more important than ever. What did I let go of this year? Things that I am damn good at but I won't ever be great at: creative directing, IT (don't laugh) and operations. These roles are now owned by Impossible pros that are way beyond my abilities.

And letting go of good is not just for me but applies to our entire team. Everyone in the company is being asked, "What can you be great at?" as together we seek opportunities for each and everyone to step up. And step up they have.

It's Your Turn
The moral of the story: the longer you or your staff go on devoting your energy to things you're just good at, the more you're fooling yourself and driving your clients and teammates crazy. Is your team bumping up against frustration, confusion, and messes? That's a sign that someone isn't operating within their unique ability.

Don't deprive others of doing what they're great at simply because you can't let go of what you're merely good at. What got you here won't get you there.

Perhaps you need to wake up and hire that bookkeeper. Or promote yourself out of the art director role you're good at so you can give your top designer a shot at being great in that position. Or maybe you're way overdue getting real with someone who is struggling and making messes; make them responsible to discover what they can be great at and then expect them to deliver.

But how will you afford all this new help? Hint: people operating in their unique ability are faster, better and command higher prices.

At Impossible, this unique ability concept means we've had to evolve from simply offering jobs to offering serious career paths. Every member of the team is expected to discover what they can be great at and pursue it relentlessly. The company's job is to find a way to exploit it and make money. You're doing what you love, and the company loves what you're doing.

Or at least that's the dream. And from the look in everyone's eyes at the Christmas party last Friday night, I'd say we're getting closer every day.

Thanks for reading.


For further study:
Jim Collins' Hedgehog Concept in Good to Great at www.jimcollins.com
Dan Sullivan's Philosophy of Unique Ability at www.strategiccoach.com


really nice post!

That's definitely some food for thought. This past year I've taken the approach of "Train your weaknesses, race your strengths." For client work it's definitely utilizing my strengths, but outside of that I prefer to try and at least gain a better understanding of my weaknesses and work to improve them. My end goal is to become a more T-shaped creative, but it was great to hear a completely different perspective from a very accomplished person in the creative industry.

Best of luck in 2011.

Thanks for the comment adorf. I'll admit the "if you're good at something, stop doing it" perspective is rather radical.

The prevailing wisdom here in the West (which has been beaten into our heads by the educational system) is most certainly "you must strengthen your weaknesses." My coaches' answer to that notion was simply: if you work on strengthening your weaknesses, all you'll end up with are a lot of "strong weaknesses."

It took me a long time before I could fully embrace this. But time has proven it true. I know of no one who has ever focused on a weakness and transformed it into greatness.

Thanks again.

Good read Joel and great work this year!

Hello Joel-

I am Vance's mom. I just finished reading your post and I am digesting the candid thought that went into writing this and sharing it with others.

I am especially impressed with excerpt:

" Every member of the team is expected to discover what they can be great at and pursue it relentlessly. The company's job is to find a way to exploit it and make money. You're doing what you love, and the company loves what you're doing."

This needs to be tattooed on every manager/owner/CEO's arm lest they forget that they have the power to let go and let their team run with the strengths that are the reason they were hired in the first place. This is the first "from the boss" article that I have read that isn't a bunch of hot air & churned out pr crap. Hope to meet you some day- you sound bright, interesting & involved.

Passion will take you everywhere. If you focus on what you're passionate about, you'll be just fine, whether or not you're good at it. IF you're fired up about it, you'll get good at it, and you'll work hard enough to run circles around somebody who's just good at it (and burned out and lazy).

Hey Joel! Poking through the Egotist while rendering some work and read this! Great commentary on a business and obviously shows the experience you have after being involved in this industry for a long time. I think if a lot of prospective (or current) business owners sit down and really absorb the concept, they will be in a much better place. I love the idea of stepping aside of a role you are good at so someone else can be great. Happy belated new year and hope to see you soon! Best of luck!

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