Chris Murphy

Sep 09 issue

Chris Murphy set up his marketing company, Fox Murphy, in 1997 and relaunched the business as Balloon Dog last year. But reinflating the business to give it a much-needed lift wasn’t easy

I’ve learned that being a leader isn’t always about being popular. You have to be prepared to make tough decisions, and that’s fine as long as you communicate your plans properly and are respectful to those around you. You have to accept that sometimes you’ll need to tell people things that they don’t want to hear.

Manager, not friend

The company had reached a point where, although we’d enjoyed five or six years of consistent growth, it really needed to be streamlined and integrated. There was too much baton passing going on; the way departments operated was ineffective and clients were beginning to question why we were charging them for separate services.

But when I tried to lead a change, I was looking for too much consensus instead of taking the resistance in my stride.
So things quickly slipped back to the way they were before. As we’d just featured on The Times 50 Best Small Businesses to Work For list, there was a feeling that we were doing OK and didn’t want to rock a happy ship. But we were actually in a state of denial about the things that needed to be changed.

After a period of reflection last July, I decided to restructure the company. In order to make a fresh start, I brought in a new managing director. Lots of the changes that were then introduced were the same ones I’d tried to implement previously. This time around there was more determination to make it happen and the changes went through. The experience made me realise that I should have been more assertive the first time. If I had been then the company would have been in a much stronger position today.

The right people

During our period of fast growth, I was spending too much time trying to manage the work that was coming in, rather than using our position as a springboard. I should have brought in senior people sooner to help develop our long-term strategy. I think part of the problem was that we were no longer the same small-scale operation that we’d started out as, and that was something that we hadn’t really admitted to ourselves.

There was an element, I think, of wanting to give opportunities to people already in the business. But sometimes you have to be honest about people’s capabilities – they have to be up to the task. There were instances when I wanted to be supportive and help staff grow, but they actually weren’t able to step up to the challenge.

That created a terrible situation with one person, who’d moved from a customer-facing position to something a bit more intellectual involving lots of strategy. It was a lose-lose situation, as I’d taken them out of a role that they were actually very competent at. That person knew they weren’t up to the mark in this new position.

In these situations, I’ve found that having an informal, honest conversation can bring about the best resolution. When it’s someone you know well, you don’t need to go through an overly formal performance management process. I solved the problem by getting that person to move sideways in their role, rather than demoting them. I changed their position back to where their strengths lay.

Part of the success of our business was due to its culture and small family feel. I really wanted to keep that atmosphere of oneness, but as we grew that was proving difficult. You can’t please everyone, and it takes courage to do what’s right.

The one thing that I’ve learned above anything else is that you have to trust your own instincts.