11 Years of Barrel, Some Lessons

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Every June 1, we celebrate the incorporation of Barrel. Most years, it’s a simple toast at the end of the day. Last year, on our 10-year anniversary, we had a nice party at one of my favorite restaurants. This year, we had margaritas and ice cream. We also launched a brand new website.

What I most cherish about June 1 is that it gets me thinking about lessons I’ve learned in the past year. Over the past few days, I’ve mulled over the things I wanted to write down, and one thing I told myself is that these lessons may be valid now, but they may not hold true forever. Having said that, I think it’s worthwhile to jot them down so I can go back and read them later.

No Ego, No Drama, No Snark

For a long time, I tended to: let my sense of self-importance (ego) guide my behaviors; get embroiled in unnecessary conflict, escalating what should be a non-issue; and mutter things that add no value and only serve to put down or demean others. I think these behaviors arose from deep-seated insecurity as well as a lack of discipline.

I can’t pinpoint the exact things that got me to pay more attention, but a couple books that have been helpful are Ryan Holiday’s Ego is the Enemy and The Education of a Coach by David Halberstam, the biography of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. As I became more aware that I caused unnecessary stress for others (and myself) and engaged in unproductive behaviors, I began to realize that I was failing my team and not modeling behaviors for success. In order to establish a healthy and well-functioning workplace, I needed to stop drawing attention to myself and instead be a positive and encouraging presence. I also began to consciously think about win-win situations and overcame my default desire to have the last word or be “right” about something.

Nowadays, “no ego, no drama, no snark” serves as a personal mantra for me when I interact with team members, clients, friends, and family. I’ll catch myself every now and then falling into bad behaviors, but having the presence of mind to pull back or change course has allowed me to have much more productive interactions. I’d like to think that this shift personally has been reflected in the people we’ve hired, the people we’ve promoted, and the way we interact with each other at work. But I’m not taking credit for this. In fact, what’s more likely is that I’ve been most helpful by getting out of the way where I should be out of the way and letting our team do their thing.

If I had to summarize the takeaways from this lesson, they would be:

  • Don’t draw unnecessary attention to myself
  • Say only what’s necessary and helpful (there is power in staying quiet, something I’ve yet to master)
  • Encourage and support others through positive words and actions
  • There’s little to gain from “winning” an argument; let it go or find common ground

Embrace Doing the Hard Things

I’ve come to believe that truly worthwhile and impactful achievements come about when I take on activities that are painful in some way. If it’s in the realm of fitness or sports, the pain relates closely to the physical and the mental ability to endure or overcome physical discomfort. At work, the pain is focused inside the head and is about overcoming distraction while maintaining concentration. Nothing craves distraction more than the prospect of doing something that requires extra concentration. This is what I mean by “hard things”. Author Cal Newport calls it deep work (and his book of the same title is excellent). It’s the stuff that “makes my head hurt”. But if the head doesn’t hurt, then I’m coasting and doing the bare minimum. Rarely does new value get created when I’m unwilling to do the hard things. And in business, the more I’ve been successful in embracing brain-draining activities, the greater the value of the output. Examples of the hard things include: proactively creating frameworks and systems for new service offerings, designing a new way to visualize sales and marketing data for our clients’ businesses, and taking the time to refine our case studies and the story we tell about how we help our clients.

I think it’ll be more and more of a challenge to make the time and create the conditions for deep work to occur. Those who can do it successfully day in and day out will vastly outperform those who engage mainly in the transactional activities of email correspondence, meetings, and repetitive tasks. This is something that I’ll continue to monitor and improve both for myself and for the talent we nurture and acquire at Barrel.

Acting with Confidence

Modesty is terrible for business. I’ve learned the hard way that you’re not doing yourself any favors by trying to be humble with a prospective client. Talking yourself up isn’t about arrogance or being “too salesy”. It’s about displaying confidence in your own skills, your experience, and your understanding of the prospect’s challenges. Sure, there may be companies who do bigger projects and make more money, but why does that matter? There may be experts who’ve written more on a particular subject or given more talks. But that doesn’t take away from any of the work we’ve done as a company and it certainly shouldn’t make us feel any less qualified. This is where I’ve learned the value of focusing on us and doing the best we can to tell our story of why we’re relevant, why we do great work, and how we help our clients succeed. The work often won’t speak for itself, especially when the work goes far beyond what’s visible in screenshots and video captures. It’s our duty as a business to make sure that our story gets told and in a manner that inspires the prospect to respect our expertise and to imagine a relationship together.

Conclusion

Much of what I’ve been learning is a combination of how to conduct myself on a day-to-day basis and how best to spend my time. I don’t think this is something that’ll ever be completely solved and in fact will probably continue to evolve. However, when I take stock of the lessons I’ve outlined above, I do believe there are some timeless takeaways that I bet will ring true even years from now:

  • Avoid behaviors that may lead you astray from being considerate, positive, and warm with others.
  • Time is precious.
  • Be proactive in telling your own story.

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