When I was in 8th grade, on a dare, I attempted to navigate through a thick woods by our home, all alone, on a moonless night. Beyond the visions of Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger that were in the back of my mind, I found that the forest seemed alien at night. The typical markers I knew so well were now hidden in shadow, and all I could do was attempt to head in what I thought would be the right direction, putting one foot in front of the other.
So hold on to that image for a moment; we’ll come back to it.
Now, fast-forwarding in life to about one year ago, a busy and productive 2019 was just winding down and new opportunities were emerging. Just before the holidays I had a conversation with national leadership at my firm, in which I was asked to take on the newly formed role of General Manager of our Chicago studio overseeing the local integration of our marketing and brand advertising offering, and digital experience design and engineering capability. I was excited and grateful for the opportunity and entered 2020 energized with the possibilities.
At that point, I assembled a local leadership team and held a series of retrospectives, diagnosing opportunities for improvement, then held an intense, day-long North Star workshop with our entire Chicago studio to set a strategic vision of collective ownership for our team.
We created a roadmap, laid out success criteria, and planned priority initiatives. On Friday, March 13, we were then all called into a national online meeting and told that in order to safeguard everyone’s health, we would be asked to work from home for the foreseeable future.
That was nine months ago this week.
First of all, I am grateful that my employer has held the safety of myself and my colleagues as the company’s topmost priority. Deloitte Digital, like many other companies, has had to make difficult decisions in the wake of the COVID-19 global pandemic, but each employee’s health has always been the most important concern.
The difficulty of effectively managing a group of creative people who love collaboration and making great things together seemed at first like that night in 8th grade, finding my way across a landscape I thought I knew quite well—but now finding it completely changed. Nonetheless, as I look back on the journey so far, working and leading through the wake of COVID-19, it has been an enriching experience that has taught me many lessons. With that, I wanted to reflect on some of what I’ve learned and what I know I’ll continue to carry forward in my work, even as we all emerge from the pandemic.
I have long believed that the greatest hallmark of a true leader is her or his capacity to empathize. Admittedly, this is simpler when we’re face-to-face and can pick up on the visual cues and body language that can tell us when someone needs help or counsel. These nuances are simply not as evident in an online video meeting.
As the weeks of enduring lock-down orders and remote collaboration went on, I realized the emotional and physical strain of seemingly endless video conferences was challenging for many, and on top of other factors in their personal lives made more complicated by the pandemic.
I set up time with each member of the studio to talk one-on-one, not to ascertain their performance, or provide coaching on their next project, but to ask one question: “How are you doing?” And from there, just listen.
I’m humbled by the courage many of my team members have displayed in honestly detailing some of the highs and lows they’ve experienced, and it has inspired me to be a bit more emotionally candid and even vulnerable.
I’m also grateful for the feedback I received from my colleagues, who ultimately provided constructive, sincere, transparent thoughts. It has granted me countless insights into how we can continue to enhance both our client delivery and our studio talent experience. And all I had to do was listen.
When the novelty of video happy hours and having fun with virtual backgrounds had begun to wear off, we wanted to ensure we remained connected and communicative, but also be respectful of people’s well-being.
We began get inventive with activities that would encourage both connectivity and well-being in a virtual world. One particularly enthusiastic designer even came up with a series of proposed exercises that were keenly insightful and would not add further online time. I already had a series of daily stand-ups with the team, and she recommended turning at least one of them into a walking meeting, where we would not just give permission but actively encourage everyone to just talk on the phone. With this small but critical change, everyone was empowered to get up from behind their laptop and go for a walk for 30 minutes.
Straightforward acts like this made a huge impact on our culture and ability to stay connected but also balanced. In fact, even people from other studios joined our Chicago Thursday morning stand-ups because of the encouragement it provided in being active.
In a similar fashion, another idea was brought to me by a principal in the firm who wanted to find a way to encourage people to disconnect during the Thanksgiving break. We were able to give everyone a small gift card to rent a couple of movies online. People later shared photos of their own “movie nights” we had encouraged. One UX designer even built a holiday-themed pillow fort with friends for their evening of watching Elf. It created community through the act of disconnecting and relaxing.
Again, simple gestures contributed an outsized difference to our team’s morale and operations when we applied some inventive thinking. Further, Deloitte Digital’s leadership has been incredibly supportive of finding ways we can all collectively shape our experience together.
We had entered this year with some aggressive sales objectives already, as well as a robust plan to build and sustain a significant go-to-market pipeline with specific industry sectors. When the full impact of the pandemic started to become apparent, we had to become flexible and modify our game plan.
Fortunately, we’re now in a very healthy place as a business, and through the many months of remote working and modifying our initial roadmap, we’ve always remained focused on how we are evolving our local studio’s operations, capabilities, and portfolio. Even as we pivoted, we never lost sight of the original vision we had crafted together in January. While the journey to get there has been different than what we had imagined, we’ve still made tremendous progress together as a creative collective.
During this time, data has been a key instrument for driving this positive change. With information detailing our developing situation, we created a dashboard that I review each week with the full team, along with a business snapshot overview that we go over in detail once a quarter. This has underscored the importance of using this data to build a culture of full transparency, both inspiring the team with a vision of our progress, as well as showcasing where we can still improve. This ultimately has helped us remain nimble yet continue to drive toward the end goal.
. . .
Looking back at that dark night in middle school as I made my way through the woods, I did eventually emerge on the other side, trusting all the while that I would somehow find the edge of the forest.
Similarly, I know that we as a team will continue to progress forward, and I’m grateful for the incredible talent and energy each one of my colleagues has invested in that collaborative achievement.
Most importantly, it’s obvious now that success looks a bit different than what we envisioned nearly a year ago. However, the journey we’ve taken together has ultimately helped shape our studio in positive ways, and as we walked through the darkness together, putting one foot in front of the other and finding our new way forward, I think we all have learned so much from one another. And as a team, grown stronger.
Matt Witt is a marketing and digital innovation executive, who uses data, design, and content to transform businesses, evolve their brands, and ignite their future potential, to compete effectively in a 21st century global marketplace. He is the General Manager of the Chicago studio of Deloitte Digital, a full-service creative agency, where he has the privilege of working with a talented group of designers, engineers, and storytellers, all committed to creating brand momentum, bringing people closer to the things they care about and driving businesses forward.