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Transitioning into a New Leadership Role w/Richard Black

By Anthony Taylor - January 10, 2022

SME Strategy is a strategy consulting company that specializes in aligning teams around their vision, mission, values, goals and action plans. Learn more about how we can help align your team with our strategic planning and implementation services.

Untitled design - 2021-12-27T131748.040  Anthony: Welcome, ladies, gentlemen, folks and people to today's episode of the Strategy & Leadership Podcast. My name is Anthony Taylor, I'm the Managing Partner at SME Strategy. We facilitate strategic plan creation and support teams with implementation. And I get the pleasure of interviewing Richard Black today, who is the President and GM at Superfly. Richard, what's happening today? 


Untitled design - 2021-12-27T131729.426  Richard: How are you Anthony, it's great to be with you and your audience.


A: I'm so excited to chat with you. I'm excited to learn more about, you know what you do on a day to day basis and your journey. And I'm excited to talk to you just before the holiday break before you get to go hopefully, on your vacation. But I won't digress too much about your vacation. Why don't you tell our listeners a little bit about who you are what you do? What keeps you excited about your day to day life?

R: Sure, I am, as you noted, the President and General Manager of Superfly. I've worked in the advertising/marketing business for the past 30 years, at a number of different agencies. And it's really the craft that I love. My primary focus really is on brand experiences, which I think are just so critical to life for all of us, and especially, you know, as marketers, but also even more importantly as humans.

A: Yeah, I got that. I'm a big marketing guy. I'm a branding guy by trade. But I'd really love to learn how long have you been with Superfly as of today?

R: I joined Superfly about 16 months ago. I actually joined in the middle of the pandemic. I left my former company after 14 years working under the IPG umbrella, and a variety of roles - senior roles within the organization. I joined Superfly in probably one of the most interesting times you could join any company.

A: I would agree. So what has that journey been like for you? Because obviously, you had your previous role. And you were with that company a long time. Leaders often come into new organizations, especially in leadership positions, they have the opportunity to create a new mandate, create a new future. And in your case, you did it through a challenging time. So maybe you can walk us through, you know, what was your plan of attack walking in? What were some of the things that went well, what were some of the challenges without of course, you know, disclosing anything that's too private, but just like your journey in this new leadership role?

R: Sure. Well, I think one of the most interesting things about the journey is that anything that I thought prior to joining the company, pre COVID, all of that went out the window. And I consider myself a really lucky individual and leader, in the fact that I got to lead in 2008, during an economic tsunami and saw the impact on our business, and the industry as a whole. And then fast forward to 2019, 2020, 2021, to really have to lead in uncertain times to through a healthcare - you know, and the pandemic. So that in a lot of ways fundamentally shifted our core businesses live experiences. So I came here with the mandate of hey, how do I build upon the great legacy inside the company? And how do I prepare it for its, you know, its next phase and next chapter? So I often talk about, really less about future proofing the agency as a whole, but making it future ready. And so that was what excited me about joining the company. And, yes, we had to throw in a little COVID in there to make it a little more interesting. But that's really what I came here to do. And that's, that's really what I've been on, since I joined.


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A: Cool. And so how did you rally your team around that future ready, while also kind of maintaining the essence of the company, while still you know, putting your own spin on it? What are like two or three practical things that you did? Maybe starting with your leadership team, or if you went with the company as a whole?

R: Sure, I actually began to build my leadership value inside of the company from the ground up. I think it's really important for when new leaders come in, you know, essentially nobody likes getting a new boss. Whenever there are senior changes at the top of an organization, people wonder about, you know, the individual, what does that mean for them? What does it mean for the organization? So that's really where I started. The number one question that I got was, well, what's your vision for the agency? And so I did one-on-ones with each person inside the company. I wanted to get to know them as human beings first. I wanted them to know me as a human being, I think, most people could go to my LinkedIn profile and see the things that I've done, but I wanted them to know about the individual, the person that was joining the company. Because in the outset, I need them more than they need me. Because I need to think about, well, how are we going to actually drive step change growth in the company? And who are the people that are going to do that? You know, for me, so I started with the ground level meeting with each individual person one-on-one. They were all done via Zoom, which, you know, was interesting, because we could sort of sit face-to-face and there was a lot of questions like, well, how tall is he? And, you know, just things things like that pop up.

A: I'm still wondering how tall you are, but we can cover that later.

R: We will, we'll skip that. But and so, you know, that's where I started. And then, from there, I really just kept basically open lines of communication and really pushed in radical transparency. So I think the hallmark of a really, really strong leader, not only is it being, you know, vulnerable, and not having all of the answers, you certainly have all the decision making power, but you may not have all the answers. And so my approach has been, and I adapted my leadership style and principles, by really being empathetic and vulnerable. Because we're all living in the same period, we're all having the same challenges. And I just wanted people to understand that I have the same challenges too. My kids were in school, they were at home, my wife had gone back to work. Now she was back at home, we were all at home. Right? So you know, we all had to deal with that. And so there were a number of things that I did. You know, one of them when I kind of just sat down and rewrote my own leadership principles, I created this thing called HAVE. So it's humble, agile, vulnerable, and empathetic. And I'm a little old school, I kind of have a moleskin book, and I wrote that down. And I would think about whenever I was addressing the team, whenever we would have like an all hands meeting and there's one every week, am I living these these virtues? Am I living these principles every day? I continue to challenge myself to do that.

A: I really like that. And I just for everybody's context, how many employees were there at the time?

R: So we have about 35 employees inside the agency business, the broader company has just under 100 people. There's a few divisions within the company, you know, and just a little bit on a company just for context for your listeners. So a startup started by several entrepreneurs, who were working in the music business, wanted to, you know, figure out what could they do to really delight fans, and really build fandom. I doubt they use those words now, those are much more like marketing speak for today, but created the Bonnaroo Music Festival. And that really was the thing that was the impetus for essentially, building out an an entertainment and experience based company. So we have an agency division that services clients and everything that your audience will understand. And then we also invest in our own IP. So we own music festival called Outside Lands in San Francisco, we have new IP with the Friends Experience or The Office and soon to be prints. And so we build our own experiences for fans, as well as we do it for clients. It's just a little like context, so you can understand kind of where where the company's coming from.

A: Yeah, that makes sense. Well, what I really appreciate of course, coming in there, because the reason I ask is it could occur as a lot of work. You know, you're like, Okay, I gotta have 35/40 meetings, one-on-one at a time, everybody's busy and that kind of stuff. And I know, coming through COVID that was what people were doing right before everybody got kind of 'Zoomed out' as it was affectionately called. But I really appreciated that not only it was less about, hey, here's my vision, but it was really asking like, well, you are sharing your vision I assert, probably also pulling in other people's vision to see where it aligns. Is that fair to say?

R: Absolutely. I think I even put a finer point on it. I had yet to write my own vision. I had my own thoughts about the company from when I interviewed, and my own research, and people that I spoke to in the industry, but they were just that - they were thoughts. They were uninformed. And to a certain extent, you could say as a new leader, you're kind of ignorant to what is really going on inside the organization. I think the strongest leaders are the ones that really kind of lead in that. So I asked everybody what their superpower was. A little bit play on the words of the company being Superfly, but I asked 'What's your superpower?' and so I got a lot of really, you know, interesting answers. Some people were like "a spider man". We got other people who were like "I can rapidly intake information", "All I ever want to do is go to an experience". And so, I, in my vision presentation, I took all that made a word cloud. And I presented that back to the company. I was like, well, here's what I learned all about you. And I hope you learned something about me. But putting all those collective words together was one of the ways that I was able to quickly like, let's just call us the culture like, that is the difference between one agency and the next. It's the values of the company, and its culture. Everything emanates and flows from that. So I think for listeners, really understanding what the values are inside the company, making sure you live those, you know, they get adjusted over time, but the great companies make fine adjustments. They don't make wholesale adjustments to their culture and their values.

A: Yeah, I get that. I really like, again, I appreciate how you did that, I appreciate how you pulled that out and said, Hey, I heard you, or at least this is what I heard. And one of the other things I appreciated out of your approach to entering a new situation is that you had your own grounding, values and behaviors. So I have a stupid example for myself as I play soccer, and I'm a soccer goalie. And I'm on this new team, and I'm kind of uncomfortable, and I say just be in good position, make good decisions. That's the only thing I have to keep telling myself like 100/200 times a game. And then what I really appreciate about you is saying, Hey, I'm in this new situation. And for me, I assert, is if I'm humble, agile, vulnerable, and empathetic, like, I'm going to be fine. Because that's, you know, what grounds me? Do I have that right? Was that how you were kind of approaching that situation? And was it what I think it was?

R: Yes. And because when the pandemic started, and I decided I was going to make this change and move to another company, it was actually even like, before the pandemic, it was really in February when all this began to kind of percolate before it became a pandemic. I had already made a personal decision that I was, you know, in earnest going to look for my next opportunity. I felt that I had done everything that I could possibly do at my last company. I just wanted something new and different. Today, we would throw that into 'the great resignation'. But before that became a thing, I just thought I want to do something, I want to do something else, but definitely related. And so, during that I began to think about being mindful and to your exact point, keeping my feet firmly planted on the ground, almost like centering myself in a way. It's like, okay, so we're gonna have this call today - put my feet down, feel the earth underneath me, and then kind of move forward from there. And so that way, it just allows myself and I think, for the people on my team to say, look, this is where we are now. And I tell them all the time, the windshield is much bigger than the rearview mirror. I know that things happened in the past, I know the things that informed how we get here as a company, but it's really about what we're going to do today and tomorrow. Versus going back, as you know, none of us can rewrite the past. There's no revisionist history. So I think that's really, really important from from a leadership perspective. And the other thing I want to add is, I also believe in this principle of being a visible leader. So I don't ask people to do anything that I have never done. So if I was on your soccer team, I wouldn't ask you to, if I was the Coach, or captain or manager, I wouldn't ask you to play goalie if I had never put on the mitts and played goalie myself or know what it's like to be in that position. So I certainly believe in that and prior, it would have been around accessibility. So you know, like most of us, I would have been in an office. And I would encourage people to, you know, visit with me get time with me, grab coffee with me, and I would make time in my schedule to do that. I still do that today, I kind of marvel that when we have new talent, when I tell them reach out to me, let me know what's going on, that even to this even to this day and the time that I've been here, I still have new talent that sets up meetings with me or directly will slack me or ask my EA "can I get a half an hour or an hour?" And I'm trying to - that's part of the culture that I really want to make sure that I am on the pulse and I want to know what's going on, but I want to hear from them on places where we can be better. Where can I be better as a leader? What am I missing? What are you hearing? How are you feeling? And so there's an awful lot of checking in with people that's happening now and I think it's actually really personally rewarding.

A: I like that. I want to touch on- because I hear a lot of the human experience in that. But before I do just a note for everyone, you know, at SME Strategy, we facilitate strategic planning sessions. And what we find as an outcome of that are people as a group, as a leadership team, they have that grounding of saying, Hey, okay, here's where we are, here's where we're going, that windshield is much bigger than the rear view. And I really like it. So if anybody needs support, or you're thinking of doing strategic planning, please do reach out to us. A lot of what you talked about was about the human experience, the metaphor that you use - I'm not going to put somebody in that, if I've never done it before, then it really shows a understanding. And I think it - I assert it aligns with when you do your experiential things. Experiential things in the world, you're saying, Hey, how can we augment this person's experience with our brand, our customer, our product, our events, and I see a very close tie in to how the work experience should in principle, align with how you do things at Superfly. Am I on point with that?

R: Yep, you're absolutely on point. I mean, our agency mission is to shape how the world plays and connects. So if you can't sell it internally, you cannot sell it externally. And so I think from a leadership perspective, and from all the folks inside, you know, any of these companies, if you really believe in the power of experiential, and obviously, you know, that people inside our company do, it's human to human - it's person to person. Those are the things that you talked about in social media, by and large, if you post a photo, they're all from experiences, unless you're commenting or doing something of that of that ilk. But the brands that win today are the ones that make a connection. And that's usually through fostering some type of emotional connection to their brand, or it could be escapism, it could be nostalgia. We're really into play. Play is one of the things that you know - you're a strategic advisory and consultancy business, we really hone in on the word play. Because it's irresistible, it brings you back to a different time and place, it's when you let your guard down, and you're more open to new things. And so it is that childlike atmosphere of creativity that we really hone in and that's how we help differentiate our brand versus, you know, any number of agency brands that are out there.

A: Cool. I love that. Well, I mean I think that's the thing when you talk about a business, especially ones in a competitive space and a competitive landscape, it's not what you do, it's how you do it, that makes the biggest difference. So let's shift gears a little bit and say, moving forward, as you look into that windshield, in terms of for the company, I'm gonna ask two questions. One is, what are you excited for? What are you looking forward to for the company's future, either with clients or with people? And the second is, what are you still challenged with? Like, what is one of the things that's not keeping you up at night, but as a leader, if you're being really honest, and vulnerable, and humble, and empathetic, what are the things that you're like, hey, I still haven't sort of cracked this, or I anticipate it being challenged in the future? So where's the company going, and where are you challenged as a leader?

R: Sure, well where the company is going, we're going to continue on our evolution of building experiences Been doing it for 25 years, they were originally live, then they began to move more digital, then they became what we would call internally - 'digital experiences'. And now we're probably, we're really probably in earnest, coming out of the pandemic, moving into, and I'm not a huge fan of that word.. we've got to come up with a better word here, but I'll say Metaverse, or we could say Web 3.0. But the reality is, the period of innovation that we just came out of has created new ways for all people to connect and one of the underlying threads in that is technology. So we all believe that we will not only want to connect human to human, let's say at Outside Lands or the Friends Experience, but we will all be really accepting of connecting on Zoom, maybe connecting in a virtual world. But those technologies that once seemed like sci fi, now we're all here. And my proof point usually when clients say well, you know, come on that may not happen. I just say if I told you in 2018 that by 2020 we'd all be working from home in our sweat pants and on Zoom, you would have told me I was crazy. So, you know, that might just be a little gamesmanship on my part. But I think this is where we're headed. So I think for the company that means new talent, more people that we can learn from, more people that everyday are going to inspire me and challenge me to be a better leader on the personal side, new capabilities that we will offer and grow into as an organization. What keeps me up at night, is what I think many leaders do if you boiled down, like leadership in this type of company, or a CEO type of role, it really is around set the vision, set the pace, find the talent and retain the talent. And in the world of agencies, it's probably one of the fastest moving leadership opportunities you can get, because they're no two days that are the same. No two clients are the same. No two clients business are the same, the challenges. So that's what really keeps me up at night is how do I make sure that I have us operationally kind of running on all cylinders, all the time. I've got clients that their business is going really great. I've got clients that are challenged. I have my own challenges in an industry with whether it's growth or margin pressure, etc. So I think those are some of the things that, you know, I wouldn't say they keep me up at night, these aren't the Sunday scaries. For me, I kind of think it's a great challenge. I kind of view it as like a game, you know, do you want to be on the field? Or do you want to be in the stands, I personally want to be on the field, I want everybody to be on the field, not just the leaders, and to have fun with what we do.

A: Yeah, I get that. Well, I mean, like you're saying, you embrace that, that kid like nature, in the work that you do. And I think that players want to play, and winners want to win. And so not that it's a challenge, but what I really heard is saying, hey, as you lead these people - and you don't even lead just your employees, you lead the culture, you also of course lead your clients looking into that future. It's to be shaped and created. And I think that - you got a picture of New York in the background, it's one of those things that I'm like, Well, if you were in New York, you know, like 100 years ago to you 200 years ago, like you played a part in it. Now, it's fairly established, and you're just like a small player in the big thing. In some smaller cities that are still growing, you can shape and create that. And I think whether you believe in the Metaverse world, like this non actual world, or even in the economy, I think that this digital economy creates a lot of space for brands and for companies and for individuals to shape and I'm personally excited for that. And I'm excited to hear what Superfly does in that as well. So as we finish up, can you tell our listeners where they can get a hold of you where they can connect, where they can learn more about what you're doing and potentially work with you?

R: Sure. So you can always you can always connect with us by going to our website, which is easy, but I'll give my email as well. It's richard.black@superf.ly. So if any of your listeners want to reach out, and it doesn't always have to be for business reasons, I'm always looking to get to know people in a lot of ways, I'm in the talent and create creative business. And so whenever I can connect with individuals, and if I can help pay it forward for someone or answer a question, I'm always happy to do it. It's why, you know, I was really excited about the opportunity to meet with you and to go on your podcast and show and the rest of your team. So that's how to get a hold of me. Or you can do the more traditional stalking, find me on LinkedIn, etc. But really appreciate you taking the time to, you know, hear my views on leadership.

A: Pleasure's been all mine, Richard. Thanks for making the time. I took some cool stuff away.. word what's sticking in my brain right now, other than Jimmy Snuka, is the word talent. And it's like the talent of people, not just the jobs and roles but like, what their capabilities are, and the importance of continually developing those capabilities in the future. So anything else you want to say to our audience before we finish up?

R: No, I wish all of you a wonderful holiday and certainly the best as we move into the new year and for everyone to stay strong. And to remember that you know, everyone that joins any type of company or anything you get hired based on, your potential, and we typically define that as everything that you've never done yet. So really lean into the stuff that you've never done. Because that's where I think you find your greatest challenges, your most joy and ultimately, that's where you find your success. So again, Anthony, thanks for having me here today.

A: It's my pleasure, Richard, and thank you to our audience for listening. And if giving us five stars on iTunes, Stitcher or SoundCloud is something you've never done.. Richard is encouraging you to do that and embrace something new. And then also, please share this podcast with somebody in your network that might find it valuable and give them some holiday listening. So my guest today, thank you Richard Black, President and GM of Superfly. My name is Anthony Taylor, this has been the Strategy & Leadership Podcast. Thanks for listening.

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