Primary Team vs. Secondary Team


Loyalty, leadership, and understanding your role.

If you are in a leadership position, it’s important that you know who is on your Primary Team and who is on your Secondary Team. It may not be what you think. The people who report to you – the ones you lead every day, who rely on you for direction and inspiration – are on your Secondary Team. Your Primary Team is made up of the colleagues with whom you lead your organization, business unit or department – the people who share responsibility for defining the vision and setting the strategies that will drive success. This isn’t a loyalty issue – it’s a leadership issue. It’s not about hierarchy – it’s about how you handle yourself. Here are a couple of analogies.


Ideally, the parents of young children function as joint members of the Primary Team. Even though they play with their children – build tents out of blankets, hold tea parties for stuffed animals, and just get silly sometimes – they understand their interdependent roles. Good parents know that someone must announce bedtime, enforce hygiene rituals and make sure homework is completed. It’s their job. When parents don’t present a unified front, but try to curry favor with their kids by blaming the stricter parent, the consequences are never good.

Likewise, if you are the manager of a baseball team, you need to coach your players to deliver their personal best in a way that benefits the entire team. That’s how championships are won. As the manager, it’s essential that your team respects you and your decisions. If they like you, that’s a bonus.  But the players are always your Secondary Team. The Primary Team is the front office – the General Manager, Owner and board. If, as the team manager, you complain about “those guys” in the front office, you’re undermining confidence in the organization. Your players need to see leadership, not dissension.

That’s how it works in any other enterprise. Most of us in leadership positions have had to work our way up through the ranks; we naturally have empathy for those who report to us. The temptation, however, especially when building a new group, is to try to win the confidence of our team by filling them in on everything that happens at a leadership level – with the Primary team. Even things that should remain private, like disagreements about goals and strategies.

Spreading rancor, or simply playing the “us vs. them” angle, ultimately erodes faith in the vision, introduces doubt about the strategy to win, and undercuts the foundation of trust you need from both teams. This inevitably leads to instability as roles and abilities are questioned. The result is two demoralized teams – Primary and Secondary – and damaged trust all the way around.

If you ever feel tempted to complain to your direct reports in this way, it’s probably a sign that you need to take the discussion to your Primary team and resolve some issues. Get clarity around the desired outcomes – the things that really matter. Your Secondary Team doesn’t need the blow-by-blow. They just need to know where you want to go, the wins the team needs to make along the way, and what it will look like when they arrive there, together. That’s leadership.

Help Wanted

Recruiting is an everyday, all-the-time thing for leaders who want to attract the best talent.

I always think twice about grabbing lunch at a restaurant that has a “Help Wanted” sign in the window – especially if the sign looks like a permanent fixture. I can’t help but wonder about the possible implications: are they short staffed because they can’t they find good help … or can’t they keep good people? Do they even remember that the sign is out there?


There is only one good spin on the “help wanted” sign: what if the management is always accepting resumes because there is always room for the best waitress, best chef, best bartender, or best maître d’ whenever they become available? What if it’s not about immediate needs, but potential opportunities?

Growth-focused companies should be continuously recruiting for the best and brightest, especially as part of succession planning. And this can’t be strictly an HR function. As leaders, we all need to keep our antennae up for the best and the brightest talent – people we meet through the natural course of our lives. In my experience, new hires who walk in with a strong referral from someone already on the team just make better employees. This includes, by the way, people recruited from within the company to take on a different responsibility.

This shouldn’t be surprising. High-powered head hunters can help us find people with amazing credentials, accomplishments and celebrity-level endorsements. But that doesn’t mean they are a good match with our culture and work ethic, or that they embrace our values. How do we screen for people who will be able to inspire collaboration in the teams they must lead? Only someone who works within a company can reasonably predict that a candidate will be a good fit. And there is general agreement that employee referrals are the best source of above average candidates. (You can read the research by Dr. John Sullivan here.)

This habit of continuous recruitment becomes even more critical in companies that are anticipating the retirement of some of their most capable and trusted leaders. Succession planning should be ongoing. Have you every stopped to think about who will fill your shoes when you move on in your career or retire?  Should you be looking beyond your immediate staff? Are there individuals in the organization you should be mentoring and grooming? Do you know someone who could be a huge asset elsewhere in the company, if you just took time to connect them properly?

Leaders seek and attract future leaders. There’s no downside to recruiting and mentoring talent. But failure to look beyond our own career is selfish at best. Take a moment to think about it; who should be doing your job in five to ten years? What should you be doing for them today?

It’s a Small World

Expanding globally promotes design diversity.

Have you ever thought about the expression, “It’s a small world”? Typically, it’s an exclamation used when we run into a friend unexpectedly, or meet a stranger who happens to share our esoteric tastes. Technology has made the world smaller in the sense that it is easier to visit – virtually, at least – its farthest expanses. We can Snapchat with our friends in Asia, WebEx with the London office, and read the latest news from South Africa in real time.


I believe that people from diverse cultures and locations are more alike than they are different. But I also believe the differences are worth noting and celebrating. One of the serendipitous benefits of expanding into new business sectors and global markets is that it brings a unique perspective to the enterprise. No matter how well-read, well-travelled, or well-staffed we may be, the odds are slim that someone in our Ottawa branch will bring the same resources to a challenge as one of our people in Singapore or, for that matter, in Dallas. And that’s a good thing.

Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to visit with our teams in Sydney, New Zealand, Singapore and China – offices that joined us as part of recent acquisitions. I was totally energized by their ideas and the diversity these professionals bring to our enterprise. I learned that these APAC offices have a great mix of men and women and age groups, all tackling a broad range of client businesses with interesting opportunities and challenges. And everyone seemed genuinely enthusiastic about what we can accomplish together.

I am especially interested in how things are developing in the critical China market.  Given its size, growth potential, and importance to the long-term global economy, I’m glad we have solid people in China who can help build our resources and capabilities. Especially as it relates to intellectual capital.

Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report, which you can download here, indicates that China is the home to “global innovation powerhouses in e-commerce, messaging, travel, financial services, and on-demand transportation.” Further, she suggests that as disposable income continues to grow within China’s vast population, it all points to burgeoning opportunity for smart marketers.

For any enterprise hoping to remain relevant in the coming years, the ability to bring both local knowledge and a wider, more diverse world view to the process will prove invaluable. The nature of innovation requires that we shift perspective – stand on our heads, change our vocabularies, and imagine new worlds in which the familiar laws don’t apply. Global expansion, and the commitment to work face-to-face with people who don’t share our list of “givens,” forces us to make the leap.

Have an Optimistic New Year

Design-thinking can help make the new year a happy one.

Happy New Year!

Do you believe that 2017 will be a wonderful, exciting and rewarding year, or do you expect bad things? Either way, you are probably right. Research shows that the very act of having a positive outlook can increase your chances of achieving a positive outcome.


One of Bruce Mau’s design principles urges us to tackle each opportunity with fact-based optimism. Not blind optimism. Not wishful thinking. Fact-based optimism. Of course, designers are optimistic almost by definition – they wouldn’t take on a design challenge if they didn’t think improvements were possible, right? Every great achievement was attempted because someone had a dream they believed in and a plan to make it come true.

This must be our approach. When we agree to take on an assignment – be it a specific customer challenge, an all-new business opportunity, or simply a refresh of a job we’ve held for years – our commitment to design thinking requires that we consider all the relevant, available data. Whether the data is encouraging or discouraging, positive or negative, it’s what we do with the data that matters. Design solutions that help bridge gaps, diffuse land-mines, build brands and disrupt the status quo are all the work of optimists with a purpose and a plan.

Regardless of what the “real world” serves up, you can be sure to find fear-mongers ready to paint worst-case scenarios for the year ahead. But for those of us committed to designing the future, the year ahead is already rich with opportunity. We’ve designed it that way.

All the best in 2017 to you and those you love.

Own the ‘no’

Have you ever had an idea that’s so awesome you just can’t wait to share it? Have you ever shared one of these incredible ideas only to have it shot down?


I hate it when that happens.

But here’s the thing. Don’t default to the obvious response of blaming the people who tell you ‘no;’ don’t dismiss their reaction as a sign of stupidity, ignorance or obstructionism.

Sure, it’s frustrating when we fail to sell an idea—especially when we are so confident that it will work and that others simply must share our point-of-view. Here’s what I try to do. I try to make an honest assessment and admit that I failed to make the case. I try to “own the no.” It’s possible that the timing was wrong, and that they weren’t ready to listen to my idea. It’s not their fault. I need to learn from what happened.

As a leader with a mandate to drive change, my first job is to create the right environment, a place where change can flourish. This can feel like a waste of time when I have a great idea that I can’t wait to launch. But the decision regarding when and how to present the idea is my choice. I can’t blame anyone but myself if I make my move too soon… or simply haven’t prepared an argument that others find as compelling as I do.

Like you, I like scoring a spectacular slam dunk. But if I fail, it’s not the fault of the guy who blocked my shot. I just need to up my game.

Living a Designed Life

Do people still use wall calendars? I used to have one in my office, but it was supplanted years ago by some sort of digital assistant and eventually by my cell phone. I still remember, a bit nostalgically, how the physical act of flipping to that final photograph for the month of December provoked a moment of reflection — a transition, perhaps, from the simple gratitude of Thanksgiving to the inexplicable urge to make the last weeks of the year “count for something.”


Even without the Currier & Ives illustration (or provocation) it still feels right, with the year winding down, to consider the journey that brought us here. As the daylight hours grow shorter, there is something essentially human about pausing, with a sense of gratitude, and taking stock. I hope you feel, as I do, that there is much to be grateful for.

I am grateful to live a designed life. I don’t mean that to sound smug in any way. As a kid growing up in a blue-collar community where the choices seemed to be “like it or lump it,” the notion that people could shape their own destiny was a revelation. (See my reference to “three kinds of people” in this blog from May 4, 2016.) Thankfully, I made the switch from being a young man taught to cope with life to one who accepted responsibility for controlling it. And, as Robert Frost so famously wrote, “that has made all the difference.”

I have heard similar stories from many of you and, in each case, success seems to hinge on understanding what’s missing — or what the unmet goal is — and designing a plan to get there. The objective may relate to career fulfillment. But it as easily applies to personal things like family issues, spiritual issues, relationships, and disappointed expectations. The essential principle of design thinking is that if you don’t like the direction something is taking, you need to stop waiting for someone or something to magically intervene; you need to make the decision to design a different outcome. Sketch out possible scenarios. Invite input from people who matter to you. Be specific about things you can act on right away and begin working toward the bigger goal.

Interestingly, two guys from Stanford University, Bill Burnett and Dale Evans, have offered a class to help students master the secrets of a designed life. You may have heard them on NPR’s “The Diane Rehm Show,” where they talked about their new book, Designing Your Life. It shows both the pervasiveness and effectiveness of design thinking.

My wish for you this holiday season is that you make time for reflection. Consider, with gratitude, your blessings and design a plan for the outcomes you desire. Surround yourself with people sympathetic to your design. Enjoy the design process as it unfolds.

There’s no deep secret to living a designed life, except, perhaps, to keep designing.

We don’t learn from talking; we learn from listening

{A Note to Readers: This is another in a series of blogs focused on Customer Experience that I am collaborating on with the amazing Katy Wild. I can always expect to learn something from Katy; I trust you will, too. ~ bph}

American author Bryant McGill said “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” One of the core principals of uncompromising service is to listen to your customers… really listen.


We’ve all had this annoying experience where you are trying to explain something you need, describing a situation you’re in, or asking for assistance and – before you can even finish the first sentence – you are already being offered the solution. This has happened in my personal life but also in business when speaking with peers, managers, and vendors! I always appreciate their insight, but it’s difficult not to get frustrated, especially when it becomes a one-sided conversation in which they simply want to make themselves heard (to make me go away?), convince me they have a fix (for something that’s not broken) or just make a sale (for something I don’t need). When your answer is not about giving me the solutions I asked for or the help I need, you are making my problem worse.

A friend of mine recently witnessed this situation – and the victim was one of her customers. She and two of her associates took an important client to dinner at a nice restaurant in Los Angeles. This was an executive from a high-profile, multi-million-dollar company that they had disappointed with a few service failures over the last year. The purpose of the dinner was to try to make amends and lay the foundation to extend the current contract.

The evening started off on the wrong foot with the two associates arriving 15 minutes after the reservation time. Once everyone was settled at the table, after pleasantries were exchanged, one of the associates began talking about his personal travel and how exciting it had been over the summer. Then the conversation moved to his children, how many important people he had done business with lately, and lastly, how successful his company was. He never stopped talking about himself. Worse, he never asked the customer how HE felt the company was doing with his account, if there were any adjustments that should be made, or if HIS business was growing or struggling in the current market.

When the talkative associate excused himself from the table for a phone call – another bad move – the customer looked at my friend and said “I wonder why I was invited to dinner?” Obviously, the situation did not put her company in a positive light, and she had to make serious reparations to extend the association. In the end, she did renew the account, but the gentleman in question was asked to be removed – and he was her boss!

Freeman is so fortunate to have many customers that love us, our innovation and our enthusiasm! But we can never take that for granted – and should never assume we intrinsically know what they want or need. The only way to find out?  Ask them… and then listen to what they have to say.

My favorite quotation about listening? This one by Thomas Edison, “We have but two ears and one mouth so that we may listen twice as much as we speak.”

Time to Give Thanks

On the second Monday in October and the fourth Thursday in November, Canadians and Americans, respectively, observe their annual Thanksgiving celebrations. Of course, a post-harvest ceremony to express gratitude for nature’s bounty is found in many countries and cultures. Celebrations date back at least to the ancient Greeks, who gave us the mythic Cornucopia. Even in a post-agrarian society, the shortening of daylight hours — in which so many of us leave for work and return in total darkness — provokes some primal urge to hunker down and enjoy a day of feasting in the comfort of friends and relations.


Traditionally, in my family, Thanksgiving includes some combination of eating Turkey and watching football (go Colts). But we all know that it’s the time shared with family that matters most. For those of us who log so many days on the road or plugging away for long hours in the office, Thanksgiving is a needed respite. It’s a time to recharge and to show appreciation to those we hold dear — those who sustain us emotionally and even spiritually.

I am grateful for my immediate family and for that place of unconditional love we share. I am grateful for all those important people in my life whom I try to keep close. I am grateful for the love of people who no longer walk this earth but are a big part of who I am. I am grateful, and humbled, to be part of my at-work family.  And I am grateful and thankful to those hardworking folks who are sacrificing their Thanksgiving to create amazing brand experiences for our clients.

We are engaged in work that is often challenging, exhausting and stressful. But it is important work — transformative work — and it is a privilege to walk shoulder-to-shoulder with people who share the same values, the same worth ethic, and the same belief in our ability to shape the future.

You’re Not Fooling Anybody

I’m sometimes perplexed and a bit put off when I see people making a big show about climbing the corporate ladder. You probably know the type—they tend to favor an elbows-out approach that blocks anyone else who might be trying to ascend. These are the people who load their plates with as much high-profile work as possible. They try to be on every committee and on the agenda of every committee meeting. And all too often, they leave the real work to be accomplished by the competent people who keep their head downs and just keep doing the heavy lifting.


Here’s a tip: we see through you.

This kind of behavior may have worked in the Mad Men era. The notion of “grabbing visibility” may even have been classic business training back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But it doesn’t work in today’s business climate. Companies with a strong culture value a spirit of humility. Everybody works hard—that’s just how it goes. And we’d rather work side-by-side with people we can trust – people who bring the same level of integrity we do – than with shameless posers.

No doubt, there are still companies out there that lack a strong culture and that reward opportunistic showboating. But I can’t believe those companies, or the people they hire, are going to be viable for much longer. I’m lucky enough to stay in touch with a number of business leaders in a variety of sectors, and no one I talk to is impressed or fooled by ladder-climbers. In fact, today’s business leaders are just naturally more inclined to give important assignments to those ‘strong silent types’ who consistently deliver great work.

Maybe, as leaders, we recognize our younger selves in today’s hard-working heroes. And maybe, just maybe, we still resent those who buzzed around, talked a good game, but didn’t accomplish much. Don’t be that guy.

American by design

Now that we know who the next President of the United States is going to be, some of us are disappointed and some are feeling pretty upbeat. But after months of speculation, we can at last stop wondering and move forward.


Here’s something I fiercely believe. We have a responsibility as business leaders, as American citizens, and as citizens of the world to design a better future. We can whine about who won and who didn’t. Or we can begin rebuilding today – by applying the fundamental design-thinking methodology we’ve been talking about recently.

What kind of world do you want to design? Our Freeman manifesto states that we want to help create prosperity, learning and social connection. It says that we want to help advance society… and elevate the human experience. To me, that means that we resist the temptation to engage in polarizing rants, and instead focus on pulling the country together by urging congress to get behind things we all know are important. Let’s start with things like job creation, education and infrastructure – not with empty promises, but with fiscal responsibility toward balancing the budget.

Sure, it’s hard not to get discouraged when we hear people griping every day that America isn’t the country it once was. But I believe that America’s greatness has less to do with the elected officials in Washington, D.C., and everything to do with the American people; our work ethic, combined with an ability to dream big dreams and make them a reality, is what defined our country.

We find ourselves on the brink of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It’s bigger than the USA and our government squabbles. It affects every country in which we do business. Every culture on the planet. The opportunities and challenges are exponential. Freeman is poised to create entirely new ways of serving the needs of our industry, and we will no doubt disrupt existing value chains. This can drive tremendous growth – the kind of growth that can spur economies across the globe.

We know that leadership is design, and design is how we change things. Here are a few simple things we can each do to effect positive change in our country.

Be your better self. Lead by example. Listen to learn, not just to offer a rebuttal.

Be a fact checker. In the age of social media, where anyone with internet access can be a publisher, fact checking is negligible. According to Pew Research, a majority of U.S. adults – 62% – get news on social media, and 18% do so often. Check your sources before you share – and you will gain the credibility and influence of a true leader.

Be productive. When you help grow your part of the business and help your customers grow their business, it generates opportunity for a lot of people.

Be trustworthy. Clearly, this election has caused a serious trust deficit. But we need to move on, and the best way to inspire others to get back to work is to earn their trust.

Make it personal. Resist sweeping generalizations. Think about people as individuals; treat everyone with respect.

Nothing in this list is controversial or revolutionary. But if we all acted on it, if we encouraged our legislators to do the same, I think we’d find more people working on solutions and fewer people working on excuses and accusations.

As Freeman moves closer to its 90th anniversary celebration, and as I contemplate our company’s rich history, I am convinced that Freeman itself stands for the very attributes people feel America has lost. Let’s embrace our values. Let’s collaborate in a spirit of trust. Let’s connect people in meaningful, transformational ways. Let’s focus on a future we’re proud to leave the next generation.

That’s the America we learned about as kids. That’s the America I still believe in.