Q&A: Joe Erwin, The entrepreneur shares lessons from nearly 30 years of leadership

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‘Make the Journey Great’

 

A graduate of Clemson University, Joe Erwin, 60, began his career at Greenville’s Leslie Advertising, and joined DMB&B in New York before returning to Greenville in 1986 to purchase Penland Advertising. He and his wife, Gretchen – also a marketing professional – opened Erwin Penland with one account and two employees.

The agency experienced extraordinary growth during his 29-year tenure as president, ultimately employing more than 400 team members in Greenville and New York, with core strengths across a range of integrated marketing disciplines including digital, mobile, social and content marketing; experiential; media and analytics; digital asset management; event marketing; and public relations. The agency’s national client roster grew to include Verizon Wireless, Denny’s, L.L.Bean, Michelin’s Uniroyal Tire brand, Chick-fil-A and Disney XD.

During his tenure, the agency received numerous awards for creative and strategic excellence, and was recognized as one of the “Best Places to Work” by Advertising Age, PR News and the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, and for having one of the best internship programs in the country. Erwin created and for seven years hosted the national creativity conference Food for Thought.

He was elected chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party in 2003 and completed his second two-year term in May 2007.

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UBJ: What’s the secret to your business success, and what’s been your role in that success?

 

Erwin: I think a couple of things. Having a very clear belief rooted in a goal and confidence that we could get there with what we wanted to do. And then being smart enough to know the things that I wasn’t particularly great at and, to compensate for that, recruiting people who were great at those other things to flank me and to buy into the goal and the philosophy and to help us all get there together. I believe it is a team sport. As I used to say when I was running the Democratic Party, this is a “we thing” not a “me thing.”

Since we’re talking about leadership, when people see that somebody who is in what is known to be the leadership position talks more about “we” than “me,” you get a lot more buy-in. For Erwin Penland I know that was important because we had such a bunch of great men and women who really wanted to make the place special. And I couldn’t have done it by myself.

 

UBJ: Experts say, though, that it does come back to you because you’ve got to set that vision and you’ve got to set the belief and then you’ve got to instill the confidence and enthusiasm. How did you do that?

 

Erwin: If there’s anything about me that people would say that they know to be true, if they’ve been around me, is that I don’t believe in those silly word titles people have, especially at creative companies, like “Chief Fire Starter.” But if I had one of those titles instead of president of the company, it would be “Cheerleader.” For me, and for what we’ve tried to do at EP and all the organizations where I ended up being thrust into a position of leadership, cheerleading was really important because people could see, “He’s got real passion and energy to make US great. And he wants all of us to be great, not just for him but for all of us.” You really want to make it a joyous undertaking and work program for everybody. That is a part of leadership. It’s not just sitting in the back room and crunching the numbers and saying, “We’re going to build these products out and you’re going to do this because I said so and it’s good for our shareholders” and all that.

No. It’s, “What are you doing to help make the journey great for everybody else?” For me, that was always the highest calling and what I was naturally good at.

 

UBJ: In running a business or an organization, from a Clemson cheerleading squad to Erwin Penland, you’re going to have personality conflicts. You’re going to have some philosophical differences. How do you manage those?

 

Erwin: I made it clear in almost every position, where I was counted on to somewhat adjudicate that, that every perspective mattered, every voice mattered and in the end I would make the decision … You can’t always be the guy that everybody loves. That was a lesson early on. I had a friend, an older guy in business, tell me, “One of your problems, Joe, is you want everybody to love you.” And I thought, “Oh, busted.”

That’s a nice thing, but sometimes you have to make that tough call. When you’ve got these differences of opinion, or whatever the differences might be that require a decision, you must make the decision and tell people that once made, “We’re moving on. So either get on the train or get gone because the decision is made. I understand it’s not what you would have chosen. And if I am wrong going forward, I’ll be the first one to say so and we’ll adjust. But for right now, this is the call we’ve made.”

 

UBJ: How did you become a better leader from those experiences?

 

Erwin: I rarely ever second-guessed myself, and I think that’s part of just having the confidence to know, “OK, I’ve listened to it. I’ve watched it. I know these people. I know what our foundational roots are. I know what our goals are, so I’m going to make a decision.”

I think you always have to be willing to adjust and change and be flexible. I would look at things and say, “OK, we tried that and it didn’t work so great, so how do we adjust?” That’s what I would think about at night.

We talk about the loneliness of being a person at the top of any organization. You never turn it off. You just don’t. You work almost every hour you’re awake because those are the things that I would think about at night – like the organizational structure we invented one year at Erwin Penland where we went with divisions and we gave people P&Ls [profit-and-loss statements]. Complete disaster. It was the screw-up of all time. Not only was it a bad organizational model, but the people we had to put atop those were not equipped. This was a train wreck you should have seen coming. But I didn’t see it coming. After a while, we just had to say, “This has blown up and we’ve got to fix it.”

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