What I’ve Learned So Far on My Journey to Being a Better Leader

Ryan Cote
Ryan Cote
Jul 15 · 5 min read

Story time to set the stage…

When I started at Ballantine back in 2003, I spent the first 10 years of my career as the Marketing Director, but I was a department of one.

So I guess I was directing myself, haha.

Fast forward to 2013ish, we decided to start a digital marketing division which I spear-headed because of my background in digital. For the first 2 years, it remained just me as I juggled Marketing for Ballantine and trying to grow & manage the digital side (which started out as just search engine optimization).

When my brother Scott came on board to help with operations and digital, that’s when things started to gel. I had someone to talk strategy with…and they say 2 heads is better than 1. We started getting bigger clients that enabled us to start to assemble a team.

I remember our first big client that enabled us to hire our first team member. I was jumping on a call with the client to get their final decision…and, while I don’t normally get nervous on sales calls, I was very nervous on this one because of what a yes meant. When I got that yes, I remember all of us hugging and celebrating. I don’t think that client knows what their yes did; I should tell them.

So fast forward to today (July 2019), we have 12 people on the digital team! And we’ve managed to put together a team of 12 really good people that care, try hard and know their stuff…and I’m proud of that.

So yeah, this is a tiny team compared to some agencies, but from my perspective, having been a department of one for the majority of my career, it’s a huge change for me.

And not to mention, I’m now in a more leadership type role as Director of Digital Services.

So why is this a big deal?

Because I’m not a natural leader. I’m very much against negative self talk, but I’m just being a realist. I’m slightly introverted…I generally shy away from conflict…and working solo has been pretty much all I’ve known. And, the truth is, you don’t know what you don’t know.

So now I’m trying to learn to be a better leader and I’ve learned a lot over the last couple of years, especially as we’ve gone from 2 people on the team…to 5…to 8, 12, etc. From both experience (growing the team, hiring, HR stuff, culture, dealing with conflict, etc…with a lot of help from my brother Scott, FYI…and now our Digital Manager, Larissa)…and through books and podcasts. Shout out to Ed Mylett. He’s the real deal and I’ve learned a lot from listening to his podcast.

In this article, I’m going to share what I’ve learned…actionable advice that I think is worth sharing.

And just so you know, I’m still working on the items below…this is 100% a work in progress and, honestly, it probably always will be…and I have good days and bad days. But below is what I’ve learned so far…what I’m aware of…and what I remind myself about every day.

You can’t lead others if you can’t lead yourself.

I’ve learned that I need to try to be my best if I’m going to have a chance at leading others and inspiring my team. So that’s where my morning routine comes in and my daily education across various topics. I even lump exercise and eating right in this category.

The bottom line is I make promises to myself across various areas of my life and I do my best to keep my word. It matters, a lot.

Do things that make you uncomfortable.

This point ties into #1 above, but worth singling out. I have found that when I make myself uncomfortable, I grow. So I do things to purposefully make me uncomfortable to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. For example, I take cold showers. Why? Because I don’t want to take cold showers.

The more uncomfortable I can make myself, the more I will grow…and the more I grow, the more capable I will be of being a stronger leader.

Invest in your team, care about them and recognize them.

To me, my team is #1. Of course my clients are important, but clients are taken care of if the team is at their best. We focus a lot on culture at Ballantine the best we can (more on this below). We also invest in our team with professional training and goal setting…and I push self improvement pretty hard in my weekly email. Lastly, I always looks for things that my team is doing that is worth singling out and recognizing them for.

Be enthusiastic.

I think enthusiasm is contagious. Energy creates more energy and that’s what my team needs. It’s what I need too. If my energy is low, it’s going to bring the overall energy level of the team down…this really goes for anyone…but as the leader, I try to be conscious of what I’m contributing to the team, good or bad.

Now the tricky thing is I’m not always in the mood to be enthusiastic. And I’m definitely not perfect, but when I find myself in a down mood, I try to catch myself and turn my mood around. Again, not always easy, but just being conscious of how important this is helps.

Consistently share wins, tips, news and your vision.

This can vary from company to company, but the point here is to regularly share content with your team that invests in them, gives them tips, share company news, etc. What I do is every Sunday I send my team an email newsletter with a variety of content from wins to self improvement tips to marketing stats and more.

Be very deliberate about a healthy culture.

Your team is everything. And I personally don’t want anyone coming to Ballantine dreading it. Obviously, there will be bad days here and there, but it should not be chronic. Happy team members creates a better company.

Here’a few things we do:

  1. Quarterly incentive programs combined with an event such as laser tag, rock climbing, dinner, etc.
  2. Monthly lunches that we pay for.
  3. Everyone gets a birthday breakfast where we get whatever food they want and we all eat together.
  4. We have New York Knicks tickets and offer them to the team to use.
  5. Our environment here is pretty relaxed with fairly flexible work times and a growing work-from-home policy.
  6. We survey our team every month to see if there’s anything we could be doing better.
  7. We do our best to create a positive environment. Excessive negativity is addressed because it’s toxic to a healthy culture.

I hope this helps!

This is what I’ve found to be important thus far. I’ll probably learn some new insights 6 or 12 months down the road and I’ll update this article.

I’ll leave you with one more thought. Part of being a better leader is investing in and inspiring those around you. And what I think you’ll find is that it is VERY rewarding.

It fires me up when my team engages back with me on what they are doing for self improvement or learning/improving skill sets.

Thank you for reading.

Ryan Cote

Written by

Ryan Cote

Director of Digital Services & Partner at Ballantine.com. I love marketing, family, morning rituals, fitness & entrepreneurship. Father to 3 girls…wish me luck!

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