What will your company look like in 2022?

Right in the middle of the pandemic, I became the CEO of Hamilton and quickly learned some critical lessons. Before the pandemic hit, our company was doing some amazing work. We provided award-winning immersive brand experiences, interactive/experiential solutions, and exemplary customer service supporting our clients’ face-to-face marketing programs. In the first quarter of 2020, we were “crushing it” and starting to venture into new areas to enhance our client’s event marketing strategy above and beyond the traditional trade show exhibit.

As the national economy plunged, I, together with senior management, challenged our team to take a hard look at ourselves. Trade shows were canceled, and our industry was essentially frozen. Where could we improve? What opportunities could we identify and seize? Our team was up for providing new solutions – whatever they may be.

After an intensive in-depth review, we found changes were necessary. Inertia and a sense of holding to the status quo – doing business in the same way that our industry had done for many years – was identified as a real barrier to achieving our short- and long-term potential. Many companies responded to the pandemic by becoming risk averse. However, we quickly realized things were going to remain different. Our contacts had new roles and responsibilities – in addition to events. Marketing budgets were significantly reduced; the landscape had changed.

It became clear – simply doing what we’ve always done – was not going to truly elevate either our company or our customers. We found that real success – hitting that zone of excellence in the last 2-4% of hard effort where a company really stands out – was not about being the biggest, not about simply having the best design, about being the cheapest, or doing things similar or mirroring what other companies do. I knew and our key people knew our customers were yearning for something different. How could we stand out?

As CEO during a recession and major pandemic challenges, the real question became personal: “How could I lead Hamilton through this?”

Leadership – permeating throughout every level of our company – had to address multiple issues, including how to produce results that truly delighted our customers. What does that mean? We found that our customers are truly satisfied, even thrilled, when their customers are pleased, satisfied, and growing more loyal because of that satisfaction. The more we developed solutions that reached across our spectrum to positively impact our clients’ customer outcomes, the higher we rose to real operational and strategic excellence. This dimension was going to help us stand out.

The word “solution” is an over-used and over-worked term, but when it’s activated, it’s a very good thing. Ours traditionally focuses on finding the unique solution that immerses and elevates the expression and essence of our clients’ brand into a truly memorable experience. But today we don’t stop there.

Over the past year we relentlessly dedicated ourselves to dive deep and really learn our customers business, their challenges, and help create solutions that will work. That means our focus changed. We committed to real cultural transformation throughout every level of our company.

Today, we go beyond the traditional trade show exhibit focus. We amped up and expanded our research, discovery, and focus to include the considerations and circumstances that exist around events, marketing, and positioning, considerations that mean something. When I say, “mean something,” I’m talking about a different kind of measurable outcome. These represent results where our customers advance their goals and relationships with their customers.

To stand out, we chose a new lens to view how we were doing business. Time and time again I challenged our team to consider deeply what we could do, both for our clients, and importantly, for the customers, stakeholders, and influencers of our clients. Viewing our company through this new optics, we changed. Our culture changed. When we talked with our clients, we stopped talking about ourselves. We found that we needed a different voice.

There’s an old saying that has been apocryphally attributed to Thomas Paine: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” All three options had a play. I suspect that there’s a strong possibility that this could be true for any company. Today, when it’s time to lead, we lead. When it’s time to follow, we follow. When it’s time to get out of the way and let our client’s amazing work shine through, we step aside, off the stage, as the curtain goes up.

It sounds simple. But we found it to be a hard process. I personally found it’s way too easy – especially in the middle of a pandemic and economic downturn – to slip back into old ways of thinking and doing. That safe “status quo” always beckons.

I am privileged to lead an extraordinarily talented team that has built a national reputation for immersive brand and event marketing. Today, our new culture and focus collaboratively pushes our solutions – and our clients – beyond the typical status quo. This core commitment hold the key to success and in demonstrating real value. Our professional capacity remains critically important, but we know there exists a more vital dimension on the customer side.

I invite you to consider this: abandoning the safe and cozy status quo and taking a major risk represents a hard-won lesson and a focus for any industry. It may be nuanced in application, but it represents a critical differentiator to achieve real success and satisfy clients. I champion the fact that risk-taking is required to reach a leadership position. Practicing authenticity and being open, vulnerable, and transparent is baked into our approach. We’re collaborative and team-focused, and we are always sensitive to what our clients go through and what their expectations are.

As CEO, I respectfully challenge our team to be agile and passionate partners who get in the trenches and do whatever it takes. I know our culture must be humble. We can always improve. We can always learn more. We can always take that one extra step that pays off. We respect and value what our clients have done to achieve their level of success.

Want to lead through times of uncertainty? Be a risk-taker, not an order-taker. Find and retain and empower the best people. And as CEO, ensure your culture reflects a real, no-holds-barred focus on your people, your clients, and your clients’ customer.

Even in this pandemic, Hamilton experienced some astonishing breakthroughs. I firmly believe we’re a company on the brink of real excellence. Why do I believe this? In summary, it’s not about what we do. It is about why we do it, and the activated unique solutions we collaboratively execute. It’s about the outcomes we achieve – both for our clients and their customers.

Lead positively through uncertainty – lead, follow, or get out the way – and build a culture of doing whatever it takes.

Jason Weddle is CEO of Hamilton, a company now in its 74th year. For more information, please visit: hamilton-ex.com.