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The Calm After the Storm – The Ampersand April 2023

April 1, 2023

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Dear Friends and Colleagues,


Three years ago this month things got very, very quiet. That March 16th happens to be my birthday is but a footnote to the more consequential memories of those strange days in mid-March 2020, as Covid rolled in, and we all freaked out. I have previously described those eerie months that followed as feeling like a fish in a bowl in a room in a house that was burning. It was curiously calm and quiet inside our four walls, but it was a raging inferno out there.



What a difference 1,000 days makes. The solitude of those early Covid months seems like a distant memory. Gone is the quiet. And while not suggesting I yearn for the good ‘ol days of a catastrophic global pandemic, the lessons we, as a firm, took out of it have changed us for the better.


Writing strictly through the lens of a small business owner, Covid, though tragic and unnerving, presented our firm with a once-in-a-generation opportunity (a word generally considered distasteful in those early days). One that allowed us to reset with our staff, our suppliers, our clients, and ourselves. And one that was even foreseen by a few friends from afar. In response to our April 2020 edition of The Ampersand, where we shared our very raw reactions to what felt like bungee jumping off a bridge wondering whether the length of the cord was longer than the height of the fall, a long-time reader and close companion of the firm, offered this prescient observation:


“On the other side of this will be, I think, a fundamentally altered business community. The newness of it all should provide tremendous, unprecedented opportunity for you. All of the corporate organization charts will be re-written. Boxes will be erased, moved, and added. Taking the steps you’ve taken will help you get to that other side.”


Here we are. On the other side. A fundamentally altered business community. The newness of it all providing tremendous, unprecedented opportunity for us. We believe we’ve made the most of this opportunity. We have emerged a better, more confident, and more resilient firm. No longer the boutique legal recruitment shop above the wine store, but a 10-person strong executive search and leadership advisory firm above the wine store. We now regularly go toe-to-toe with global foes much larger than us, losing a bunch to be sure, but winning more than they think we should. And those lessons we learned during, and the steps we took in the immediate aftermath of, Covid set the stage for what’s happening today and laid the foundation for what will happen tomorrow.


It wasn’t the specific things we did – urgently rolled out, long since forgotten – that set us up for the resurgence we’re presently enjoying. It was the way those initiatives changed our way of thinking. In the moment they were just tactics borne of necessity in urgent response to a sudden crisis. But they informed a sort of zeitgeist that persists, for while the crisis has abated the urgency has not. Urgency to constantly improve and innovate, stay one step ahead of the next calamity, the next competitor, always tinkering, and never taking a single thing for granted. As James Spader’s character, Raymond ‘Red’ Reddington, says in the trailer to the final season of The Blacklist, “live like you’re dying, am I right?”


In hindsight, it was actually easier to run this business in those first few unsettling months. Helping hands were easy to find, expectations were low, standing out required simply standing. And we were all going through it together. Like when the power goes out. No matter what you were doing before everything went black, everyone everywhere suddenly, if only for a moment in time, is on the same level playing field. The opportunity lay in your ability to see in the dark. How well you know your house, how comfortable you are with the ambiguity and uncertainty of it all so that when the lights come back on, you’re not only not behind, but considerably further ahead.


Not only can we see in the dark but turns out we can be heard when it’s loud. It’s one thing to stand out and be heard when it’s deathly quiet but it’s entirely another when everyone is making noise—my how the volume’s been turned up. Post or perish. Content is king. Competition is fierce. Barriers to entry virtually non-existent. AI is taking over. Tips ‘n tricks, Do’s and Don’ts, and top 10 lists abound. Hundreds of emails pollute my inbox and LinkedIn every week. Confidential Agreements from Ms. Yulia, Deputy Chairman of the Management Board and Personal Finance Director Ukrsibbank Ukraine. Greetings from Nepal with warm words of introduction to Seven Seas Intercontinental Services Pvt. Ltd. George Lucas, Financial Consultant Officer, Dubai, United Arab Emirates seeking to know of the possibility of going into partnership discussion with my company.  Frances and Patrick Connolly from Moira, N. Ireland writing to let me know they’ve chosen me (Me!) to receive £925,000!  Lovely people, the Connolly’s. It’s not lost on us that you actually read this newsletter at all. Given all the clutter and drivel being pumped out and dropped into your inbox, I’d be tempted to delete it myself if I didn’t write the darned thing.


It should come as no surprise, then, that at our recent strategic planning retreat – our first since Covid, err, ended, we focused almost entirely on innovating, standing out, and rising above the din. We took a very hard and mercilessly self-critical look at the business, briefly patted ourselves on the back for surviving, and then spent the bulk of our time together dwelling on our losses and examining what we can still do better. To have won the work we lost. To make efficient the useless. To automate the manual. To streamline, remodel, modernise, and rise above the clamour. All without losing our human touch, or is it because of that human touch that we’re already there?



Interestingly, we’re way harder on ourselves during a winning streak than a losing one. The self-flagellation directly corresponds to the degree of success. Constantly pushing for how we can get better, how can we continue to stand out, to differentiate, to push. So, at the retreat we cast a critical eye on what’s working, what’s not, what to keep and what to discard.


Our Podcast, The Ampersand: Unplugged ? Keep it. Consummated during Covid, it’s working; a great way to have impactful conversations with fascinating people about topics of interest and with thousands of downloads it’s clearly resonating.


Our space? TBD. Sure, I’m nostalgic and the exposed brick and general aesthetic we’ve enjoyed for the past 14 years never fails to garner oohs and ahhs from visitors, but sadly there’s a reason Stephen Avenue Mall was used to film the post-apocalyptic Zombie show, The Last of Us. Beyond safety, if we want our people to return to the office, amenities matter, too. On the other hand, it’s awfully hard to throw the best rooftop Stampede party in town if you don’t have a rooftop.


Our Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool, Daylite? Ditch it. Coming on 15 years since we, literally, took the CD-Rom out of the box and loaded the disc into our computer, the tools available now are so advanced and sophisticated that we owe it to our team and our clients to invest in the very best technology. And on it went.



Fresh headshots for the team? Get ‘em done.


New hire at the junior end to enhance our research capabilities?  He starts May 15th.


Lateral acquisition at the senior end to increase market share? In progress.


Organize and host a long-overdue We Know People client event? Sub-committee struck.


Review our entire search process, step by step, from start to finish, take it apart, put it back together, and tighten the screws? Screwed and tightened.


Inform ourselves about the emergence of AI tools like ChatGPT and the influence the robots will have on our industry? Careful, they byte.


Review our social media stats and strategy and assess what’s working and what can still be improved upon? Done.


Invite our IT provider to present on Cyber Security and the countless related risks to our business? Done, but wow, sorta wish we hadn’t.


Part of the reason I no longer work at a large national or global firm, having tried to do so on three separate occasions, is that I always felt a certain cynicism toward the ‘do more, be more’ corporate get togethers. Sure, the typically tropical locales and inevitable socialising at these so-called strategy sessions was a perk, but the actual ownership and accountability for stewarding the organization forward often felt pre-determined, half-hearted, long on Rah Rah, and short on action. Attending these things was to spectate and recreate rather than participate. Our venue, though lovely (thank you Calgary Telus Convention Centre for the beautiful meeting room and great service), was hardly a Sandals Resort. And our team was as involved presenting, leading, and curating the content as they are now expected to action it.


Above all, the retreat was humbling. I don’t need to be, and am absolutely not, the smartest person in that room. The input around how to make us better was a shared undertaking, each member of the firm with an equal voice, making their own unique observations and contributions. Covid was also humbling — like a monster over your shoulder you’re determined to outrun – and that humility is the fuel that’s powering us now.


That, and the fact that all of the corporate organization charts have been re-written. The boxes have been erased, moved, and added. And taking those steps we’ve taken absolutely has helped us get to that other side. The house is no longer burning, but as importantly, we’re no longer a fish in a bowl. Covid was an opportunity. It was the CTRL+ALT+DEL of our time and when the lights came back on and we had rebooted, we were ready.


Turns out we really can see in the dark.