Finding new leadership within a founder-led business: simplifying succession at December19

Under its founders’ leadership, December19 had already established a thriving culture with a strong focus on development. When the founders decided it was time to step away from the day-to-day operations, they were committed to recruiting from within the business. Aware of the complexities this can involve, they enlisted expert help to recruit internally while protecting the culture and ensuring ongoing commercial success.

December19 is a media agency truly committed to putting its people first. Founded by Dave Barnett and Dan Pimm, it developed a strong reputation for its learning-based culture, earning CPD Gold, and as a great place to work, as attested by its selection in industry magazine Campaign’s Best Places to Work listing five years running, which it won in 2018.

Photograph of the December19 team accepting the CPD Gold accreditation certificate
December19 achieves CPD Gold certification

“We set out to break the cycle that traditional media agencies are known for,” says Dave. “Everyone working ridiculous hours in a race to the bottom on pricing. It’s a fiercely competitive market so that is the norm, but we didn’t want that.”

Dan adds, “We wanted to provide truly great service and charge fairly for it, going beyond the usual agency deals which other providers have in place, and really putting our people and clients first, ahead of massive profits. And it worked.”

Putting people first – building a thriving culture

D19, as its usually known, makes no secret of its people priorities. In fact, it’s front and centre on the website: “Our clients and people are at the heart of the business; we always do the right thing, not the easy thing,” a principle the two founders have demonstrated consistently throughout the pandemic and beyond.

Although Dave had been in the role of Managing Director for the last five years, the founders were keen to keep the succession moving and step back. He says, “We wanted to grow into our roles as co-founders and step further away from the day-to-day operations of the business, while remaining confident it was still true to our vision and values.”

Committed to recruiting internally to keep developing the talent within the business, they knew this could prove a complicated and delicate process. They therefore wanted a clear plan to help them identify the right candidates and manage the process from start to finish, with plenty of support for the successful person while they were getting to grips with the new role and its responsibilities.

A simple solution to a complex problem

Although the founders already had some operational HR support, they identified that bringing in a more strategic HR presence would be beneficial for the recruitment process and beyond, navigating the sensitive nature of internal progression with tact and diplomacy.  Already familiar with the fractional model of executive support thanks to their part-time CFO Dax Mehta from The CFO Centre, when they came across sister company People Puzzles, they were confident it could work well for them.

After some initial consultations and trials to find the right People Director with an approach that really suited D19, Helen Witt came on board. Having worked with other media agencies she was familiar with the sector and understood its unique challenges, so she was able to quickly grasp what was needed and get a clear plan in place.

“Helen’s approach was spot-on,” says Dave. “She knew we didn’t want a “big corporate” approach and her direct, highly strategic yet hands-on style suited us really well. She helped us work out what we needed and wanted, and gave us the guidance and support to make difficult decisions and see a clear path forward.”

Supporting change and delivering the plan

Helen collaborated closely with the founders and quickly developed the organisational structure and process for recruitment, ensuring the role was clearly defined and that communication within the business was handled well.

The recruitment process included three distinct elements, including assessment, briefing and psychometrics provided by Thrive, to ensure excellent candidate feedback. Part of the process also included developing a three-year strategy to ensure the longer-term vision remained fully aligned with the founders’.

“Helen drove a really clear, simple plan, navigating courageous conversations adeptly and ensuring buy-in from the whole team,” says Dave. “And although obviously one of the final candidates was unsuccessful, she managed that relationship really well so there was no fallout from it.”

Once appointed, Helen then helped design the transition period, gradually bringing the successful candidate, David Lucy, forward, while keeping Dave and Dan involved as shadow support in the background.

Where next?

“We wanted to focus on some big initiatives, like going for B Corp accreditation and growing new opportunities for the business. Having David Lucy in place has MD freed up our time to do that,” says Dave.

The founders are feeling positive about the future of the business and their roles in building the bigger picture and vision, now that the operational management of the company is in great hands. They both feel stepping back was the right decision for the business and its people.

“We had a five year rolling plan which is now more of a three year plan, getting the business in a really great position to really power on,” says Dave. “The team really like and respect David and we are now in a great place to build from. It’s a young, talented team who are able to take advantage of the new technology available – he’s the right person to be leading the team and we are delighted with the new structure and how it’s working.”

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