Rising Through Resilience: “They told me it was impossible and I did it anyway”, with Steve Connelly
An Interview With Executive Business Coach Alexandra Friedman
The headline was “No one loses pitches like we do.” The ad went on to describe all the clients we had at that time who did NOT pick us. But I stayed in touch, developed relationships, shared honest feedback about the work they were getting from other agencies (and usually very complimentary…I love great work no matter who does it). We had 6 clients on our roster that didn’t pick us initially, but came to us eventually. A loss is not forever, a loss is merely a lesson.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Connelly, president and copywriter at Connelly Partners (www.connellypartners.com). When Steve Connelly established Connelly Partners in 1999, he set out to do one thing: to show the world that good people can do exceptional work. 20 years later, he’s still celebrating the unique abilities of humans and those things only humans can do and feel. Headquartered in Boston, with an office in Dublin, the agency is independent, outside the restrictions of a holding company. Steve and Connelly Partners use creativity and empathy to solve business challenges for brands including Four Seasons, Titleist, Gorton’s Seafood, and BJ’s Wholesale. The prototypical “Everyman,” Steve has used his gifts for human insights and his passion for connecting with people to create not just a growing business, but also a working environment and culture of humanity that has been recognized by AdAge and Boston Business Journal. Before Connelly Partners, Steve worked at several of Boston’s top agencies. Steve is a copywriter by trade, and outside of the office, can be found coaching high school basketball.
Thank you so much for joining us! Before we begin, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
I’m a copywriter by trade and a high school basketball coach by night. I started Connelly Partners in 1999, with the goal to show the world that doing great work didn’t mean sacrificing your humanity, humility or life outside of the office. What started as a two-person shop out of borrowed space has grown into the largest independent agency in New England. We work with clients like Four Seasons, Titleist, Gorton’s Seafood, and BJ’s Wholesale. Headquartered in Boston, with an office in Dublin, not New York or London, we’re rooted in shadow cities with an independent fire and something to prove.
Before Connelly Partners, I worked at several of Boston’s premier agencies on clients that shaped my perspective of the industry. I’ve been around the block and seen the industry go through some series ups and downs. Needless to say, it’s been quite the ride!
What are the top three factors you would attribute to your success as a leader at Connelly Partners?
Always treat people the way you want to be treated and see the world through their eyes.
I never take myself or this business too seriously. We are not curing diseases, we are helping people sell stuff.
I tell people what I think, not what they want to hear. Sometimes it gets me hired, sometimes it gets me fired, but it’s my responsibility to share my perspective.
In your opinion, what do you think makes your company stand out from the crowd?
One of my favorite things to say is that “Everyone notices a streaker, but no one wants to shake his hand.” I think this business is too often about disruption and getting noticed. To me, this business is about human connectivity and getting people to like your brand. Kinda simple actually. At Connelly Partners, we’ve doubled down on defending humanity, in a business that increasingly marginalizes it. That’s what sets us apart.
How has your company continued to thrive in the face of rapid change and disruption in your industry?
Another one of my favorite things to say, “A bad decision is better than no decision.” I think our company is surging because we take risks, make investments, and make educated guesses about where the world is going. We are not afraid to be wrong. We are afraid of being sitting ducks.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s jump to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. All of my successful clients seem to have one quality in common, and that is resilience. What does resilience mean to you?
An agency head is like a submarine captain. You feel like you are always under water and everyone is looking at you. Be confident and lead. Hell, I’m not always right, but never in doubt.
When you think of tenacity and endurance, what person comes to mind?
Sammy Hagar. It’s hard to be the second lead singer. It’s hard to go from solo artist to being in a band. But the guy, while certainly flawed, is singing at the top of his game in his 70s, is still starting bands, and is the entrepreneur I most envy. He has started a bike company, a fire sprinkler company, multiple liquor brands, restaurant chains, a TV show, keeps writing awesome original material and everyone in the business loves the guy. Tenacity with a smile. Plus, he has a plane, and his hair.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway?
Too many times. People love to say something is impossible. Shooting down dreams is a favorite pastime of lazy people. I’m sure you’ll get lots of typical anthemic answers to this one. Yes, I was told my company would fail. Yes, I was told acquisitions I have made would be disasters.
One instance I will always treasure is when I was coaching a high school girls basketball team that was short on talent, but high on resolve. They believed they could make the tournament, and they did make it with effort and hard work. They lost in the first round. Great kids with great work ethic lost in the state tournament, but they were never supposed to be there. That loss was one of the biggest wins of my coaching career. Just awesome fun.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever?
I’ve been fired three times. The last time I was fired was from my position as president of a 200-plus-person agency that I had helped rebuild and attracted some damn fine talent too. I don’t begrudge my ex-partner for firing me. We were at different life stages with different appetite for risk. Still a great friend of mine, a wonderful person. But in the days after my dismissal and the elements of Connelly Partners DNA formed around me, I was “repaid” for being a decent, moral person with a penchant for copy and empathy. So many people lent a hand, support, office space (thanks Tom Simons) and my agency organically came to life, clients came to me to solve problems, and today I am blessed (and still a little stunned) to be leading a company of our size, and frankly, important defenders of humanity. Man, does this business seem more committed than ever before to marginalizing humanity.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency?
Again, so many. Here’s one, I love baseball. I used to be pretty good. But in my formative developmental years around 13, 14 and 15, I didn’t dedicate myself to the craft of pitching. I got by on talent until I was left behind. Talent alone is NEVER enough. So when I went to college and tried out for the baseball team, I found out pretty quickly I lacked the skills to compete. I could have given up on the sport and pursued something else. But I decided to work on the skills. I found, on my own, a crazy pitching coach at another college who agreed to work with me. He taught me the power of repetition and that to be great sometimes requires being boring. He had me pound nails with a baby sledgehammer into a piece of wood over and over again. It developed the muscles in my hand that ultimately gave me a pretty good curveball. I made my baseball team, but didn’t play a whole lot. But I kept at it and played at a pretty high level in my 20’s, actually was a better pitcher in my 30’s and still love pitching today in my 50’s. All because of a baby sledgehammer, some nails, and a lesson learned in boring begets excellence sometimes.
What strategies do you use to strengthen your resilience?
I have three kids. Nuff said. I also coach high school basketball. I need to be resilient coaching the walking chemistry experiment that is the high school student. And, I run an ad agency. I think the biggest strategy I embrace is to accept you are going to lose sometimes. You are going to lose clients, games, people in your life. Life is about loss and how you deal with it.
I once ran a house ad for Connelly Partners in the Boston Globe. The headline was “No one loses pitches like we do.” The ad went on to describe all the clients we had at that time who did NOT pick us. But I stayed in touch, developed relationships, shared honest feedback about the work they were getting from other agencies (and usually very complimentary…I love great work no matter who does it). We had 6 clients on our roster that didn’t pick us initially, but came to us eventually. A loss is not forever, a loss is merely a lesson.
What are your thoughts on how leaders can create a more resilient workforce?
Number one, save your money. A well-capitalized company can weather storms, preserve talent, maintain cultural DNA and create a sense of stability. Don’t spend when times are good, save. But the biggest thing I have learned is, again, understand that everyone is watching you. Stay calm, be positive but credible, honesty is always the best policy, and remember that when you run an agency or coach a team, you are supposed to be the grown up. Your job is to lead, not to be liked. Make the hard decisions, explain them honestly, don’t describe the future, but rather the path to it. And always remember that we all make mistakes. Give your people the rope to make theirs and help them learn. Another favorite quote of mine, “Everyone makes mistakes. Just don’t make it twice.”
Extensive research suggests that people who have a clear purpose in their lives are more likely to persevere during difficult times. What is your purpose?
To teach with a smile.
What is your favorite quote or personal philosophy that relates to the concept of resilience?
“I’m worth more dead.” Hey, we’re all gonna die. I have a lot of insurance. But I don’t live scared. Again, a bad decision is better than no decision!
Can our readers follow you on social media?
Yes, they can follow Connelly Partners on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/connellypartners/), Twitter (https://twitter.com/connellyagency), Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/ConnellyPartners) and LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/company/connelly-partners/).
Thank you for all of these great insights!