Marketing Musings

How a Traffic Light Changed How I Think About Leading

How a Traffic Light Changed How I Think About Leading

Do you ever wake up with a cloudy mind overwhelmed with ideas, worries, and maybe a touch of imposter syndrome?

One day, after a particularly challenging quarter with year-end looming, I headed out for one of my daily coffee rides — a mind-clearing self-care routine where I take a 15–20-minute break to get coffee. (I know, sounds like something anyone might do, but do you? When’s the last time you headed out during the day, even for a few short minutes, regardless of how crazy things are at work, with the specific intention to reignite your mind, body, and spirit?)

It isn’t the smooth torque of my electric car or the rapid shot of caffeine that makes these coffee rides so powerful. It’s the space I hold for myself to think, process, and reflect.

So, there I was at a traffic light🚦 on an empty backroad on a cold winter morning. I sat there, exhausted from tossing and turning all night, and watched as the stale red light shifted to a welcoming green. A basic programmed signal that instinctively told me to go forward.

I wish my business could be as simple as this traffic light, I thought.

I drove on, in pursuit of my morning Starbucks fix and forgot about the traffic light until later that day, when I sat down for my daily meditation. Suddenly, the image of that traffic light popped into my mind.

Why can’t business be more simple? And how can I inspire my team to progress as effortlessly as that light shifts from red to green?

It was this spark of an idea that I think, in large measure, is why my business had one of its biggest years ever in 2021.

Full disclosure: That might sound like a humblebrag, but it’s not. It’s based on plenty of screw-ups early on (some of which were haunting me that fateful morning I went on my coffee ride). It led to a core principle I hold today that my co-founder and I fondly call the “No Assholes Role.” During the pandemic, I saw that play out, time and again, as I realized how crucial it is to use your EQ (emotional intelligence) even more than your IQ.

Sounds a little counterintuitive, but trust me. (Spoiler alert: trust is the linchpin.) A people-first value system is crucial. The good news is I have some great ideas and frameworks to design demand for your company by rocking your EQ with rock-solid values — a topic I discussed in a recent podcast with the Entrepreneur’s Handbook.

Let’s dive in.

Put Emotion into Motion

Here’s how I see it: people are like non-fungible tokens, unique in every way. But ultimately, if you share a set of values, you can band together and build a structure that offers shelter, peace, and glittering prosperity.

That’s why the company values are more than just a poster on the wall. (In my company, we actually have one of our core values sandblasted in the brick at our headquarters. More on that in a minute.)

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Clarity is one of the hardest things in businesses because our brains aren’t identical — we can’t possibly know what others are thinking or feeling without intentional communication.

As a leader, you have to balance logic and emotion on a daily basis because of the human condition. That’s ultimately where I see a lot of challenges come up. For example, I often advise, coach, and mentor tech founders. And I can relate to them — I come from an engineering background, too. I have that same tendency to lean in with a rational bent. Unfortunately, people aren’t always rational, so that can be difficult for some of us to navigate.

So, I focus on supporting and nurturing these tech leaders by helping them realize that you can’t update, access, or clone a person the way you can a git repository. You can’t just deploy a piece of code to instantly shift or upgrade another person’s behavior.

It all begins with your EQ — as a leader and a brand. EQ is all about knowing, understanding, and using your own emotions to foster happier, healthier, more prosperous relationships. Mastering the so-called “soft” skills — which, as I tell people, are actually the hard skills — is vital nowadays.

Want proof? Think about all those places nowadays that can’t believe their employees are leaving in droves. They clearly have no self-awareness. What do they think? Asking people to put work over their personal lives, demands of the job over their health and well-being — I mean, have they learned nothing from the Oprah and Prince Harry show, The Me You Can’t See?

We all need to learn more about that, as being honest, transparent, and proactive about mental health, as it’s no longer seen as a “weakness” — it’s a strength.

The message is clear: people are feeling machines. And when you honor their emotions by listening and responding with curiosity, empathy, and interest, you are richly rewarded with…

The Most Valuable Business Asset: Trust

Trust is essential to the success of any relationship. It gets you through the hard stuff. If there’s no foundation of trust and mutual respect, everything goes out the window.

Now, in the business world, this can be tricky. We’re all afraid of letting others know our “secret sauce.” It may be hard to imagine that being transparent and honest with everyone, from your employees to your clients, can sharpen, not dull, your competitive edge.

However, that’s precisely what it does. And it’s not so difficult — all it takes is learning to listen, activating your curiosity, and asking good questions. This is how you can fast-track becoming aligned on principles and values, ensuring everyone is on board with acing challenges and goals. Understanding how each person can contribute best is the top job of today’s business leaders.

And that’s not rocket science — feeling heard and accepted is a fundamental aspect of human motivation. I’ve noticed my team and I are unstoppable when I honor that. So, that’s what I prioritize today. Because as a young business leader, I learned the hard way that when I pushed one of my ideas forward without buy-in or consensus, nine times out of ten, it failed.

To build trust, you have to have well-defined values. And to define those values, you have to trust that they will equally support everyone in your orbit, from your intern to your Fortune 100 client.

What Do You Truly Value?

Many, if not most, companies nowadays talk about their mission and values. But like I said earlier, a poster on the wall or page on your website that a copywriter slapped together isn’t going to cut it.

For example, my company, Digital Surgeons, is a brand experience consultancy. The focus alone tells you that we’re all about creating positive experiences for brands and their customers that build trust, foster connection, and encourage loyalty. And we can only be successful doing that if we do it not just for clients but also for ourselves.

So, here’s a brief look at our four core values:

  1. Be curious.
    We believe that creativity and curiosity in business today are broken. And we’re on a mission to fix it. In a world that’s constantly in flux, we believe the more we ask, explore, wonder, understand, and ideate on, the more we can accomplish.
  2. Care greatly.
    Passion improves everything. As does EQ: By opening up our hearts, we create human connections that benefit everyone.
  3. Adapt & respond.
    Change is the only constant. (Remember I said earlier we have one of our values, “Change is the only constant,” sandblasted in brick?) We find wonder and possibility in transition instead of uncertainty. So, for example, the COVID-19 pandemic became a conduit to being more creative, collaborative, and innovative than ever before.
  4. Simply believe.
    This one is symbolized by a bent spoon (a nod to The Matrix, one of our all-time favorite movies). Innovation is like magic — you have to believe it first to see it. There’s a Henry Ford quote I say all the time: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” We have to believe in each other, the client, and what we’re doing, and together we’ll win.

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Now, on the surface, these core values may seem nice but perhaps lofty. Because that’s the thing with values — if you don’t have some real checks and balances in place, it’s hard to tell if they make any real difference in your business.

I agree, and this is where the traffic light comes in. After that lightbulb moment after that fateful coffee ride, I developed a KPI framework to measure our performance against. And that’s how we’re seeing breakthrough results, such as increased new client wins, happier teams, and better financial performance.

Evaluating Your Values

We created the framework “the Four Green Lights,” and it drives everything we do. It’s directly related to each of our values, #2 (Care Greatly), in particular. Here are the key measures:

  1. Team satisfaction:
    Is everyone on our team happy and healthy? Are they able to prioritize the things in life that truly matter, like family? If the answer is no for any reason — up to and including an unreasonable client — then it’s a red light, and we make changes. Happy teams lead to better work, which, in most situations, leads to happy clients thrilled with stellar results.
  2. Client satisfaction:
    We truly care about our clients’ pain points and challenges, so we focus on understanding what they need most and deliver just that. Because this KPI is preceded by team satisfaction, we know that the person or people servicing the client will have an excellent attitude and work ethic because they’re aligned with what makes the client and their audience tick — and happy.
  3. The impact of the work:
    This third KPI is all about whether working with us helps the client achieve their desired results. This is measurable in myriad ways, from ROI to CAC and affecting long-term LTV. And because we do a lot of work with customer sentiment, we also are served with anecdotes that let us know how we are doing and how we did.
  4. Profitability:
    Yup, profitability is last because profit is not a goal. It is a result. If profit is your goal, I worry about you as a company and your core values. Great companies are profitable, but they don’t focus on profitability. They focus on success with their teams and customers.

Put these Four Green Lights all together, and you have a solid picture of what your company does and who it thrives on doing it for. So, for example, our company is full of pet parents. So we are a great fit for brands like Freshpet, an all-natural pet food company. My team easily gets behind (and crafts) their messaging and digital experiences because our values are aligned: the world is a better place with healthy, happy pets.

On the other hand, with a KPI framework like the Four Green Lights, it quickly becomes clear what isn’t going to work. Recently, we stepped away from work worth potentially high-six or low-seven figures from a really interesting company because one of the leaders in the company was exceptionally rude to one of our junior staffers. Our team member was simply trying to set up a meeting, and they were met with roadblock after roadblock. We had another team member follow up, and it was the same situation. So, we contacted the potential client to let them know we decided to remove ourselves from the RFP process after serious consideration.

Now, you might think our KPI framework is crazy because it led to a decision to walk away from a potential million-dollar deal. But I’d argue that we just made a million(+) dollar decision. The signal that my co-founder and I sent that junior staffer and everybody else on our team now and in the future was: We value you first.

When you prioritize your team members’ well-being, they will go above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that their company is being cared for. And that is the surest and swiftest way to ensure your clients are being cared for. So for me, that decision will have a ripple impact that is far greater than the potential revenue.

Because at the end of the day, it’s what I told you upfront: we have a No Assholes Rule. We don’t want to work without souls. And we know from experience when we can put our hearts and soul into our work, it’s for the benefit of all.

For the record, that’s something that has come with time and learning. Truthfully, I have screwed up a ton. I’ve made a million mistakes. And I think most of my mistakes came down to not listening enough. Not trusting my instincts and ultimately doing something that didn’t have all four green lights.

The bottom line is to know what you stand for and what you don’t — lean into that and lead that way. That’s the secret to designing demand for your business, from the people who work for you to the people you work for and all the people in between.

Now that you know about how the Four Green Lights has helped our team accelerate progress, I’m curious about your metrics of success. Do you have a bespoke measurement or KPI that might seem funny from the outside but works business magic?

I’m always interested in collaborating with people who invent their own metrics or who would like help designing specialized KPIs to measure and encourage their success. I love thinking through custom dashboards, frameworks, and visualization systems for breakthrough shifts in business performance.

Hit me up in the comments with your thoughts — you have a steady green light for your most off-the-wall ideas here. You never know what ends up putting the pedal to the metal!