Q&A with Tamara Littleton, The Social Element
The Social Element was launched in 2002 and manages social media for some of the biggest brands in the world including Oreo, HSBC, Nissan, Toyota and Oprah Winfrey Network. We have a team made up of 130 staff and 170 freelancers. The head office is in London and we have a US entity and offices in LA and New York. It is still "fiercely independent" and majority owned by Tamara Littleton.
We caught up with Tamara to find out more about her day-to-day life as a successful entrepreneur and the advice she gives to those thinking about building their business and working with a millennial workforce.
What time does your alarm go off and what do you do before work to prepare yourself for the day?
I'm a strong advocate of flexible working hours so it does vary depending on what I'm doing that day but on the whole it's around 7am. I wish I could say I go for a run and mentally prepare for the day, but the truth is I check my emails and cycle through my social media accounts and read a couple of news articles while getting ready. I kind of hit the ground running every day.
What do you do to get the most out of your day and be more productive?
I set a daily task list and I use the Pomodoro technique to make sure I stay focused if I'm doing something intense like strategic documents or preparing for a pitch. It's a very useful time management technique and stops me from drifting off and checking emails.
What have you done to maintain your company culture as you have scaled?
I'm very passionate about our company culture and we've grown over the years to around 300 people including staff and freelancers. The added challenge we have is that I use a distributed workforce and most of the team work remotely. We have invested heavily in our processes and technology to ensure that everyone has easy access to each other and we encourage high use of video conferencing, social media and in person meetings as much as possible. We measure our staff happiness and we have a very transparent culture sharing the numbers and company news with the wider team via monthly town hall style webinars.
What technology tools have helped your business to grow?
We are big fans of Google and use Google mail, Google Docs and all the apps. Salesforce is a major part of our business and we use that to track sales, marketing KPIs and lead management but it's also part of our ongoing client growth strategy. Skype and now Google hangouts are vital for video conferencing.
What piece of technology couldn’t you personally live without, and why?
I often say that I can run my whole company on my iPhone because of the brilliant technology we have in place - this is very true, so I'd have to say my phone!
How have you built your team to drive growth?
I was always clear about creating a corporate structure from day one, even though there were only a few of us doing all the work. It's vital to get into the mindset of building the right structure but not being afraid to change it either. We've recently adapted our structure again to make it more client centric and we've invested in commercial training to help the Account Management teams be focused on supporting clients and allowing us to grow with them. The Exec team is very focused on marketing and sales and as you can imagine we use social media a lot in our growth strategy.
How would you describe your management style, and what has made you a better leader?
We're big fans of DISC at The Social Element, for those familiar with this leadership and management tool I'm a Si which means I'm focused on support and collaboration with a large dose of enthusiasm and optimism. I'm focused on the future growth of my agency and I'm passionate about articulating our future vision and ensuring that everyone feels part of the that vision. Business coaches and mentors have helped me along the way and The Supper Club has been a major influence on my leadership skills.
What skill or ability do you think has most helped you to scale?
My communication skills. We're a people business so ensuring that the team is driven, connected and engaged is crucial to our success. I'm incredibly proud of my team and ensuring they are motivated and working to company values is crucial to our success.
What motivated you to start your business, have your motivations changed, and why?
I was at the BBC and it was the early days of the dot com boom, I caught the startup bug and I felt very strongly that there would be a need for management of social media for brands. I was right, but I was also very early, it took a while to grow the market and educate clients on why social media was important. It was also so early in the journey of social media marketing as I started the company before Facebook, Twitter or YouTube even existed! I've got a consultancy background and I'm endlessly curious and very solutions oriented. It's a good mindset for an entrepreneur. I'm still endlessly curious and the industry changes so quickly that I'm still creating solutions and inventing new services today.
What book has had the biggest impact on you and what could other entrepreneurs learn from it?
I have ready so many business books over the years, I'm one of those people who takes a stack of them on holiday. There are so many I could suggest that have been useful along the way but the one I've read several times is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. It's a good read to help you focus on your Executive team and keeps me connected to them. Team work and good communication are key.
How do you maintain a healthy work/life balance?
I remember years ago once calling it a work/life merge and that is still very true for me. I love my work, so I find it difficult to switch off. I tend to check emails at the weekend but often that's to keep my inbox low by deleting emails rather than intense work. When ideas come into my head or things I need to deal with at work I've got into a good habit of adding it to a do list, so I can get it out of my mind and remain present for my loved ones and friends. I have an active social life and I also sing in a choir which is brilliant for focusing on something other than work. Burnout is something I'm aware can happen to me, but I've got better at spotting the signs and triggers and avoiding it.
What is your greatest fear, and what are you doing about it?
I've never been a confident public speaker but last year I tackled that head on by getting a speaker coach and I did TEDx talk to really fight my fear. Thanks to the coaching I actually enjoyed it and it's something I don't shy away from now. It's a crucial part of being the figurehead of your company so I'm pleased I tackled it head on.
What is the hardest lesson you have learned in business, or the biggest challenge you have overcome?
I'm a bit of a control freak but I had to learn to let go. For years I wanted to know exactly what was happening and I really was on top of everything and really involved in the details. Letting go and delegating was crucial to allow me to grow my agency, but it took real discipline and took time.
Why did you join The Supper Club, and what do you get the most benefit from?
I've been a member since 2011 and how I used the Club now is very different to when I was much smaller. I would say that being part of a Forum has really changed the way I use the Club and it's been hugely beneficial. I try and go to a few dinners and I always meet someone interesting and come away with either new ideas or validation of what I'm doing. The culture is really important to me, everyone I meet is always happy to share knowledge and challenge ideas. Also, the staff make hosting dinners look easy!
What is the most valuable piece of advice or insight you’ve gained from the Club?
I've got a few sayings that I've picked up from the Club but my favourite and most useful one is "work on the business not in the business". I know I've spread that one out to people outside of the Club too and it's become a personal mantra.
If you could go back ten years and give yourself one piece of advice, what it be?
It's better to be up front and candid with people about their performance and your expectations of them. For years I was too polite, avoided conflict and should have been more direct with people. It wasted a lot of time and energy and people can handle and deserve respectful candour.
Looking ahead ten years, what is the biggest opportunity or threat to your business that you are preparing for?
We've rebranded only a year ago so we're already on a journey to change who we are and how we do business, it's very exciting and I'm already plotting new revenue streams and more international expansion. It's important to keep adapting so my team has got used to my constant desire for change and growth. I'm sure I drive them crazy but it's never boring!
What is the greatest challenge you have faced with a millennial workforce, and how have you overcome this in your business?
I embrace the millennial workforce, the focus on values, purpose, career growth and loyalty is very in tune with our culture. I've always been a bit sceptical about splitting up people into the different age groups and acting differently. I find that most people that work for The Social Element are motivated by similar things regardless of age.
What have you learned about engaging young talent that other business owners could benefit from?
It's important to keep them involved in what's happening and why, so we are very transparent and have a collaborative approach to communications. We're also big fans of mentoring within the agency. Our young talent can really benefit from going on pitches and being thrown in at the deep end but with senior people to give honest feedback on how they can do things differently if they need to.
To connect with Tamara on LinkedIn - click here