Learning To Lead: How Rich Brooks Became a Better Manager Through Experience

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Building and growing a team can be challenging for any business owner. Hiring employees and managing them effectively is essential for success.

Rich Brooks had a difficult time hiring and managing employees when he started his business. He struggled with finding the right person for the job and managing them effectively. His first approach to managing the person he hired was to micromanage them, which resulted in frustration for both Rich and his employee.

After a few months, Rich realized that he needed to hire another person to help with the workload. He learned that hiring the right people was crucial to building a successful team. As his company grew, he faced new challenges, such as giving feedback to employees, but he was able to overcome them by implementing effective communication strategies.

In this episode, Rich Brooks will share his experience in building and growing a team, hiring employees, and managing them effectively. He will discuss the challenges he faced, the strategies he used to improve his leadership skills, and the importance of communication.

If you want to learn how to build a successful team and become a better leader, don't miss this episode!

Rich Brooks Headshot

Rich Brooks of Flyte New Media

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Atiba de Souza: Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of the Build Your Team Show. Yep. The show where we talk all about how to build your team so your business can grow. And I've got an OG with me today. An OG, Mr. Rich Brooks. This guy is famous. Let me just tell you, I go places and people are like, "do you know Rich Brooks?" Rich Brooks is the man. And you guys are about to get to meet him today.

And as always, Build Your Team is brought to you by Client Attraction Pros. Hey, it's time that you become the thought leader of your industry, and we're gonna help you do that and make it fast, easy, and fun.

Atiba de Souza: Rich, welcome to the show, my friend. How are you?

Rich Brooks: Well, I'm just, kind of, clumped here. I'm a little bit blushing, now I realize that OG actually just means that I have gray hair, but that's still fine. It sounds very complimentary and I just wish that I had had this show available to me when I was first starting out because I've learned everything about growing a team in the most hard way possible.

Atiba de Souza: So, well, talk about a lead in y'all, right? All right, so let's talk about in the most hard way possible. Let's go all the way back to when you started, right? And you were in a place where you're running a business. It may have just been you, you and some family but you were ready to hire the first outside person. Your first real hire. What was that moment like for you?

Rich Brooks: I would say terrifying. You know, up until that point it really just had been me in my apartment, with my computer. I mean, that was literally the entire company for the first few years. And I had a client out in California who told me basically that they loved working with me, but they needed to give me more work and I was gonna have to hire people to take on that work or they were gonna have to stop working with me.

Like, it really came down to that. So that was for me, kind of, like the impetus cuz I didn't wanna lose them as a client to start hiring people. And so, I didn't know anything about it. And we're in the process right now of hiring another team member actually, too. But back then it's like, "what do I do"?

I, you know, at the time I was living, still am, living in Portland, Maine, and I just took out an ad in the Portland, Phoenix, which was, kind of, like an independent newspaper, solely because they had the cheapest classified ads. I got a few responses. I chose one kid. A kid, he's probably almost as old as me, but you know, to me it was just like my first hire and he was part-time employee and I kept him on for, you know, a couple years and I would just kind of give him work as I had it, you know, for about maybe 50% of the time.

Atiba de Souza: Wow. First off, I asked that question to a lot of people and that's probably the best story I've ever gotten of, you know, "hey, I had a client, they wanted to give me more work and they told me I needed to hire, otherwise they would go somewhere else". I mean, talk about the kick in the pants to get you moving

Rich Brooks: Yeah.

Atiba de Souza: And so, you started with the classified ads and you brought 'em in part-time. Did some work, had 'em for a few years, which is great. Now, in that process, were you ready to manage?

Rich Brooks: I think maybe at the, if you had asked me at the time, I would've said, sure. But looking back on it, absolutely not. Basically the way I looked at this person and back then I did everything. Obviously, it was a one-man show, so I did. And now we're a full-fledged digital agency. At the time, it was primarily websites and maybe what would be described as some low level SEO and maybe some email marketing. That was about it though. So I would basically just show him the tasks that I needed to do, teach him how to do it, and then have him do it. And he would come into, I was working outta my home, in an apartment. He would come into my apartment for a couple days a week.

I set him up on a second computer and basically that was it. If he screwed up. I told him he screwed up. I wasn't really good at managing people. I didn't know what I didn't know quite honestly. So I paid him what I was supposed to pay him, and that was basically it. There was no true mentorship.

There was no, here's where you could go. You could be head of development one day. There, there was none of that. I hired him and actually around the same time, I ended up hiring another person just like a couple months later because what happened is I realized that, as the tools for each TML got better, it exposed how awful I was at designing websites.

Like, up until then, my websites looked like everybody else's, but as soon as the tools got better, everybody realized that I was basically doing the equivalent of drawing stick figures. So I had to hire a true designer. And so I ended up hiring another part-time person who was a really good designer. And so he would do the design work and either I or this other guy would do the development work on the websites.

Atiba de Souza: Gotcha.

Rich Brooks: And I didn't give that guy much feedback either except, "oh, I like your designs, or maybe try again". That was about it.

Atiba de Souza: Okay, so, so let's then talk about the inflection point because there you've become a great manager. Okay?

Rich Brooks: I don't know if my employees would say that, but thank you,

Atiba de Souza: Yeah.

Rich Brooks: I'm working on it. I am a work in progress. That's all I can say every day.

Atiba de Souza: And that's the key though. That's the key to being a great manager. I think anyone who says "Yes, I am a great manager" to that statement and doesn't say I am working on it, actually isn't a great manager cause you never reach. Right. But–

Rich Brooks: there's always something new.

Atiba de Souza: Yes. Where was that point when you realized that, "oh crap!" I'm not being a good manager. I'm not actually helping these people. I'm just giving them tasks and then there's no feedback. There's no nothing". When was that moment?

Rich Brooks: I'd like to say there was this big "aha!" Moment, but to be honest, there really wasn't, and I don't even know if I was the person who had it. So what ended up happening over time as my company grew and I had a couple employees working for me, three employees maybe at that time, it got too crowded in my house and we ultimately got some space in the old port, which is the hip part of Portland, Maine, and I was able to hire a few more people and even then, I was not giving good feedback.

In fact, I remember a woman who no longer works for me broke down crying when I was giving what I thought was very, you know, reasonable feedback. I said, "didn't I tell you?" Dot, dot, dot. And I realized, you never– that is like a horrible, horrible thing to say to anybody. You know, there was like a million ways that I could have put it in a better way to really teach her up. But there wasn't anything like that. So I would say basically, there were fits and starts along the way, like, I'd get to a point and then we started hiring people and sometimes those people would oversee other people. And I started to realize that there's an entire approach to helping people rise up.

But I didn't even at this point, like I had never taken a business course in my life. I had no idea how to grow a company. So I was really flying by the seat of my pants back then. I would say, actually, if there was an inflection point, I think I had already become a better leader and a better manager of people by the time Covid arose.

But I would say that for me, really it was the beginning of Covid and that was where everything started to come into focus. Where I realized that like, this is gonna be a very difficult time for maybe the next couple weeks to a month. Cuz literally, you remember that's what we thought Covid was gonna be like at the beginning.

And as it started to sprawl out of control and it was like, are we ever gonna get back to school? Are we ever gonna get back to work? And everybody's working remotely. That I really tried to make sure that everybody felt involved in the company. And I remember doing an interview with my dad at which we shared through all the social channels we had.

And my dad is an expert in resilience. He's a very famous clinical psychologist, travels all over the world, even into his eighties, giving presentations on resilience. And we had a big conversation about what leaders, company owners should be doing for their employees during that very difficult time right at the beginning.

And a lot of the things that he said to me were things I was working on, but he really helped me clarify it and realize like, You really have to be engaged and you really have to create these policies and you really have to be empathetic to people. And it was very, almost the remoteness of things made me have to, it's like being on stage, as a play actor versus being in the movies.

Where you almost have to enunciate and you have to almost overdo things when you're remote to somebody to let them know how you're feeling. And I started doing daily check-ins with my employees and just making sure their mental health was okay and telling them it's like everything is gonna be okay.

But I think a lot of that which was a little bit always in my nature, but kind of messy and I didn't know how to communicate it. Started to become more clarified, and then I ended up investing in a leadership program too, for myself, which I've since put somebody else here on my team because I needed to know how to have difficult conversations with people.

I'm like the Michael Scott, where I always want to be liked. I mean, I hope I'm a better boss than Michael Scott, but, I want to be like. So a lot of times I didn't say the necessary early things that would've been difficult to say and I waited too long. So those are some of the things I learned along the way.

Atiba de Souza: Wow. Wow. That's amazing. And it's one of the– those interesting things where, because so many times we look at Covid as such a negative, but there were so many positives that came out of Covid as well for those who were willing to actually pay attention and actually be introspective. And so, I used the word, you added another word, and I wanted to get your definition between these two. Okay. I used the word manager. You used the word leader and manager. How do you define the difference as the CEO between leadership and management of your team?

Rich Brooks: That's a great, great question, Atiba, and I don't know if when I said those words I was being as distinct as I could, but if you, you know, putting me on the spot and I appreciate it right now, I'd say, you know, a leader can lead by example. So it's like, if I want my team to be empathic to our customers, I need to be empathic to them.

You know, if I need my employees to be on time and deliver the best results to my clients, then I need to do the same to them. So that's like leading, leading by example. I think a manager is more about giving those coaching lessons all along the way. It's a little bit more hands on, it's a little bit more back and forth.

I'm not saying leaders can be or should be aloof, but I think if I had to define the two without opening up Websters right now, that would probably be the difference that I would say.

Atiba de Souza: Okay. That's fair. And I tend to agree with you not that the leaders are aloof, but definitely it's more vision and direction setting and overarching versus the, not necessarily called handholding, but the day-to-day coaching. Coaching is the word you used of.

Rich Brooks: It's like a head coach versus the quarterback coach. Right. You know, one might be very hands on with a couple of employees or players and the other one has a bigger picture or maybe even general manager. But we don't need to go down the sports motif right now.

Atiba de Souza: Well, we could, we could, and we could spend all day there too, I'm sure. Right? . Yeah, no. So, that's great. So now within Covid, you've started recognizing the importance of communication and really, articulation and almost sometimes even over communication. Right.

Rich Brooks: Yes. Yeah,

Atiba de Souza: How did that affect the team?

Rich Brooks: Well, my defensive default answers you should ask them. But you know, I feel that it was really important and I also, I think it impacted them in a very positive way, if I'm being honest, because I think that Covid was a very difficult time and when I read these articles in the New York Times, in the Wall Street Journals about quiet quitting and the way that people were forced back into the office, and I'm not saying that people shouldn't be pushed back into the office, and I'm not saying they should be pushed back in the office.

Every company needs to make their own decision. But I think that checking in with them regularly and being empathic and trying to understand what was going on with them. Cuz I hired a few really young people and hired them during Covid. Many of them I did not meet for months and we're a small, intimate group for months because of Covid.

Right. So I had to go that extra step and I think that kind of, formed a bond that may not have been there before, and I needed to communicate to them how important they were, not just in terms of how many billable hours they had or what the performance review was, but also like, how are they doing? How are they, you know, feeling, how are, how are their loved ones, how are their cats and house plants, whatever it is, like, just to try and understand what they're going.

You know, at the end of the day, I am the boss. I do have to make those decisions that's gonna make us profitable and take care of our employees and clients and everybody else along the way. But I think to get the most out of people, you really have to give them a place where they can grow and thrive.

And not everybody can grow and thrive in a very competitive environment. And my method of leading is the kind of leadership that I would want to see in somebody else, which is we're in this together. Everybody's got strengths. Let's figure out how to put all these pieces together so we can create the best possible product, the best possible service.

And I live in Maine for a reason. Like I love the lifestyle and it's not go, go, go all the time. So I wanted to surround myself with people who definitely wanna win, definitely wanna do a great job, but are more concerned about like doing a good job and also having time to go for a bike ride, or go skiing or snowboarding, or spend time with family, whatever it is.

That's what I was looking to create as a company, and I'm hiring people that I feel can help me do more than I can do by myself when it comes to that.

Atiba de Souza: Yeah. That's awesome. And so, you know, one of the core tenets that we talk about here on this show a lot is hire for fit first. Right? There are a lot of people who can do the job, but if they're not gonna fit your culture and environment, they're going to be toxic. Right. And that's exactly what you were just alluding to.

And so, my question then becomes, for you, in your environment, how do you find those people who fit? How do you determine that they fit before you hire them?

Rich Brooks: So it's a good question. It's funny, I was just in a meeting the other day and we were talking about finding people who are good fit, and a couple of people in there actually work for an HR consultancy and they're like, "oh, that's not a phrase we use anymore". A good fit. And I was wondering why, cuz like, that seems to me to be the perfect– they were saying that sometimes that language makes you feel like they have to look a certain way or talk a certain way or dress a certain way, which was not really what I wanted to get across when I talk about that.

But it is just something to be aware of as people are talking. I still use that phrase all the time, but it is something I pay more attention to because in Maine, it's difficult to have a diverse workforce in many different descriptions, but it is a very homogenous community, and I'm always looking to try and make it as diverse as possible.

Very challenging. Given our current employee pool to do that. So when it comes to finding people who would fit into the organization, it doesn't come down to their politics, even though I do have my own personal beliefs, it comes down to do they seem to be caring? Do they seem to be empathic, and do they seem to listen?

So, you know, it's like, the whole hiring process is very much like a dating process, right? Everybody's on their best behavior. Everybody's dressed up, you know, nobody wants to make a slip up. We want to hire the right person. They want to come work for us. It's like, it, it's a dance, right?

And sometimes you choose the wrong partner. It's gonna happen to every company, but, The way that they, they act and the way they behave and the way that they listen to questions before giving an answer. Those are some of the unwritten rules that could help me understand. Now, our process at flyte, and we're a very small, kind of, flat company in terms of hierarchy is I have John and Lindsay who are, who's my digital marketing manager, and my director of ops, if we're hiring on the marketing side, they usually go through the first group of people and then do the first round of interviews, and if they find people they feel have the either the expertise or the ability to learn the skills necessary, then they bring me into the meeting and I have this list of some really off the wall questions that are basically just meant to really try and understand where these people are coming from.

Questions about like, you know, what lessons did you learn from your parents? What's one word that describes what you do? When was the last time you got upset with somebody cuz they didn't do. You know, these kind of questions that just hopefully, get people to open up and speak plainly and truthfully, as much as you can on a first date.

And those are some of the ways that we get an understanding because we're very happy to hire people who don't have the right skillset because everything we do can be taught, right. But it's that attitude like, I care about the deliverables of the products that I do. I care about the quality of my work, I care about my team.

When you have those kind of mindsets then I think you can do amazing things with your team.

Atiba de Souza: Yeah. No, absolutely. Absolutely. It's interesting because we all have our process of trying to find those people and we mess up and we hire people who are not right. How do you deal with that situation or do you have any great stories about that type of situation?

Rich Brooks: Yeah. I handled that situation poorly. It's been my experience. I've gotten better. We're now in our 25th year of business and I think it was about year 15 or 16 before I fired anybody on my team. That is not a point of pride. That is an embarrassment that I couldn't let certain people go because I was afraid of how it would make them feel.

Like literally, that's was my mindset. I remember letting this guy go on our team and he wasn't a bad employee, but he basically, reduced his hours, reduced his hours. He was like part-time for us, part-time to somebody else. And I got to the point where it's like we just didn't need him and I kept him on longer that both the day came and I had to literally say, "dude, today's your last day".

And like heart palpitations and like literally holding onto the edge of the desk and just awful, awful feelings. That was how I used to handle it. And then I probably, atleast, be ready to throw up in a waste basket. And then recently we had a kid, super sweet kid, super nice kid, great enthusiasm for everything.

Loved working for us, but after a year and a half, we just couldn't get what we needed out of him. And you know, so I had that conversation with him and I basically just said, you know, I know you're trying, but today's your last day and you know, we kind of talked through it and at the end of it he got up and he said, I really appreciate the opportunity for working here.

Now that's a great story. I doubt that the next person who I'd have to say that to would have the same reaction. But I've gotten better at realizing a couple things you don't want to do, and I've made this mistake even recently, is nobody should ever be surprised that they're being let go.

Now, in a big corporation, you know, things are beyond your control. I'm not talking about that. But in a small, medium sized company where everybody kind of understands what's going on, and unless something happens out extraordinary outside the company, like a pandemic, like your number one client suddenly goes in-house with everything that's outta your control.

But otherwise, especially if it's performance based, there should be no surprises. You should be meeting with somebody once a quarter, like, and then if they're in trouble, once a month, once a week more often, like, let's get you back on track because I really need you to be able to accomplish A, B, and C every day without me asking about it, because that's the job.

And so having those kind of conversations early, even if they're difficult, that has become something that I'm constantly working on. And just recently, I had a situation where I was unhappy with some of the behavior of some of the employees. And I came right out and I said, "I'm not okay with this", and one of them came back and said, well, listen, here's why. And we had it out, but we had this really open-minded conversation where we were both trying to understand the other side and we both got a better understanding of where they are. And then I never had to say anything again

Atiba de Souza: And that's awesome.

Rich Brooks: We'll see what happens tomorrow, but yeah,

Atiba de Souza: tomorrow will be good. Tomorrow will be good. Yeah,

Rich Brooks: what happens then.

Atiba de Souza: You know, it's, firing people is never fun. It's

Rich Brooks: No, it's difficult, and if you're empathic, you understand that there's going to be, you know, consequences for them. You know, loss of income, loss of prestige, you know, whatever it may be. I put myself in other people's shoes a lot of the time, and because of that then it, like, it's hard for me sometimes to have to pull back and be able to say, but this is right for the company.

And that's literally what I have to say to myself before a situation like that, I have a responsibility to nine other people on this team. I need to take care of them too.

Atiba de Souza: Exactly. And, and I think that's for me, has been the biggest point of growth in that area of recognizing that you can't sacrifice the team for one. Right. And.

Rich Brooks: Even if that person is an all-star,

Atiba de Souza: Yeah. Yeah, because,

Rich Brooks: know, you gotta find that balance.

Atiba de Souza: and so we had that about a year ago we had a a young lady that I liked a ton. I hired her. She produced phenomenal work, and she was great with me one-on-one, and she was horrible to everyone else in the company.

Rich Brooks: Right,

Atiba de Souza: and we had to let her go. You know, it was like, it doesn't work that way. You can't just be good with me.

Rich Brooks: Right.

Atiba de Souza: You know? And she was an all-star and it's hard. It is. But that's one of those times, like you said, you can't sacrifice the company for one person.

Rich Brooks: Right. And the other thing to keep in mind, and maybe these are stories as bosses we tell ourselves, but it's like just because they're not a good fit with our company doesn't mean that they're not gonna be an all star somewhere else.

Atiba de Souza: Oh, absolutely.

Rich Brooks: I remember hearing the story from a friend of mine years ago that he was responsible for all the firing in the company that he worked for at the time.

And he had to let this guy go. And the guy was very upset. He didn't think he should be let go. It was all he wanted. And like a year or two later, he runs into this guy and the guy is of all things, basically, a meter maid or a meter mister, I dunno what you call a male, you know, parking ticket. And he goes, oh, you know, how are things going?

He goes, honestly, I could not be happier. Like all of my stress is gone. I know this seems like maybe not the most prestigious job, but all I do is I'm outside every day I'm enjoying myself and when the work day is over, I don't have to carry anything home with me.

Atiba de Souza: Yeah. 

Rich Brooks: Right?

Atiba de Souza: Yeah.

Rich Brooks: So there is a better job out there for almost everybody. And you know, it's like that's not your responsibility to find that job for the person. That's their responsibility. But the bottom line is if they're not a good fit for you, it doesn't mean that they're a lost cause. It just means that they're not a good fit in that position at this particular time for this particular company. And that's okay.

Atiba de Souza: Exactly. Exactly that. And it's okay. And it's okay, you know, with that young lady that we had to let go, what we realized was she actually never worked on the team before. She had only ever worked in companies where it was her and a boss, and that was it. She was the only employee. And so that's the environment she needs. Great. That's not us. It's like 22 of us.

Rich Brooks: Exactly.

Atiba de Souza: It's not us. Right. Wow. That's great. So, we've talked through a whole bunch of stuff here. right. Told some good stories. But let me ask you this question because by now everyone is probably wondering, okay, so who is this guy, Rich?

He's been in business 25 years. What does he do? What's his company and who do you serve and how do can people reach you?

Rich Brooks: Sure. Well, my company is called Flyte New Media, F L Y T E. We're a digital agency located in Portland, Maine, and we do web design, SEO, social media, content marketing, basically everything you need to be able to create a website and start generating leads online. And that's what we love doing. We tend to work with a small group of clients every year, and we tend to work with them for a few years in a row, getting them on the right path. Some of them stick with us forever. Other ones we set up and they're, you know, able to go on their own. We're not specifically about one industry. It's basically just about people who maybe have started their business but they're not getting as much business as they want.

Those are the kind of people we find ourselves best able to help. And so yeah, that's Flyte New Media and they can find me, at takeflyte.com. Take F L Y T E .com. And as you know, I also have this other brand called The Agents of Change, and it is a podcast and you are an excellent guest on that podcast, Atiba.

And it's also an annual conference, which we put on in Portland, Maine, and this year it's gonna be October 4th and 5th in Maine. You are gonna be there, Atiba, you're gonna be presenting. I'm very excited about that. We'll have to talk some more details. I'll find out your favorite way of having lobster prepared for you.

But if people are interested in either checking out the podcast or maybe coming to Maine and seeing you speak live on stage the best thing they should do is head on over to the agentsofchange.com. We haven't started selling tickets yet for that conference, but if you get on our mailing list, you'll have a 24 hour head start on a limited number of early bird tickets.

And VIP tickets, which we're introducing this year. And you'll be able to hang out with Atiba in person.

Atiba de Souza: Yeah, and listen. Check out the podcast, not just because I've been a guest, but it's a great podcast, right? I mean, the name alone tells you it's somewhere where you want to be, Agents of Change, right? So that's number one. And number two, if you can get to Maine, this is, and I'm saying this and I haven't even been yet, and I'm telling you this because of so many people that I highly respect who have been to Rich's event and have said how fantastic and wonderfully intimate of a setting this is for you to learn and grow in your business.

So get to Agents of Change, join his mailing list. Join his mailing list, get that 24 hour head start. Get the VIP. And it's not– hey, so I'd love to see you, but he's gonna have some great speakers there. It's going to be a great time. And hey, you get to go to Maine and have lobster like

Rich Brooks: There you go.

Atiba de Souza: nothing else like, that makes the trip worthwhile. Rich, brother, thank you. Appreciate your–

Rich Brooks: Atiba, I really appreciate it. Yeah.

Atiba de Souza: Yeah, it's been been great, man. And we'll do it again real soon. Hopefully before October.

Rich Brooks: I can't wait to see you.

Atiba de Souza: Yeah.

Rich Brooks: That's, yes, but definitely in October. Can't wait to hang out with you.

Atiba de Souza: Yes. And maybe we'll do one together in October too. Maybe we just do something if you have time. Cause I know it's gonna be kind of crazy and busy, but maybe we'll do some in person in October. Get a little interview. 

Rich Brooks: Would be fantastic.

Atiba de Souza: Yes it would. Everyone, thank you for being here. Make sure go check out Rich on both of his websites. They'll be in the show notes and I'll see y'all in Maine at his event. Bye everybody.

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