Shawn Murdock Of Icon Commerce: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times

This story was originally published by Authority Magazine and can be found here

As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Shawn Murdock.

Shawn Murdock is the founder and CEO of Icon Commerce — the largest independent commerce agency in the Midwest. For over 25 years, Icon has been transforming then-unknown brands like Tempur-Pedic® and Gorilla Glue® into household names. Under Shawn’s leadership, Icon continues to evolve to meet the demands of today’s competitive marketplace. Today, Icon is a full-service, omnichannel marketing engine, which recently saw the acquisition of ecommerce and Amazon agencies Spaceshop Commerce and Marketplace Clicks.

A lifelong entrepreneur, Shawn is an active venture capitalist and investor, a mentor to other founders and business owners, and a dedicated member of the Covington, KY community. When he is not working, he can be found somewhere in the great outdoors hiking, biking, skiing, or climbing with friends or family.

Icon Commerce is an omnichannel commerce agency headquartered in Greater Cincinnati. Its clients include Tempur-Pedic, Gorilla Glue, Sealy, Huffy, Unilever, and Phillips, along with more emerging brands.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I was raised in a small town in rural Western Kentucky. I earned simultaneous degrees in marketing and advertising from the University of Kentucky. After college, I worked at a small agency in Lexington before starting Icon in 1997 when I was 29. Icon, now based in the Cincinnati area, has grown steadily since then and now has more than 100 team members

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are several people that come to mind. The first is probably my father. As a young boy, I wanted to become an artist. My father, a pragmatic scientist, refused to pay for a college degree in art — which kind of forced me pursue marketing and advertising. That turned out to be important as I was starting my career. It really stoked my love for solving business problems with strategy and creativity.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

When I first started Icon my only “purpose” was to make enough money to support my family. And the vision really was not to build a large agency. As a relates to how we approach our client work, I had a very clear vison and purpose from the start: help our clients grow. My first client was a small start-up selling mattresses out of a small warehouse in Lexington, Kentucky. It was exciting to have a hand in the explosive growth that occurred over the next few years as they became a household brand name. We approach every client with that same mentality: “How can we help you grow?”

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

Over the course of 26 years, we’ve been through several extremely uncertain times. Most recently, I have been proud of the way our team has managed through the early part of this recession. We have grown so much over the past few years, it’s a little disheartening when suddenly you’re not hitting your growth goals. We’ve seen that this year due to clients beginning to pull back on spending. When our employees see that we aren’t hitting our goals it can be a little scary for them. Every month, we have an all-agency meeting where we openly talk about the challenges we are facing. We also talk about how we are going to face them and how we expect to win.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

That’s an easy one: my fear of failure. I don’t where that comes from, but it both a blessing and curse. During hard times, it provides the drive to keep going. And, during good times it provides gas for the fire to make as much progress as possible so that we are stronger and more prepared for whatever happens.

I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?

There are so many, but if I had to choose one it would be Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson. I read it at a critical stage in our growth when I was finding it difficult to scale. I was inspired by Jobs’ philosophy that leaders should strive to hire people smarter than them. As the leader of a small, but growing, agency, I was stretched in many directions. Reading that book helped me realize that if Icon was to continue to grow, I would have to find smart, capable leaders that could take large, strategic areas of the business on themselves and take it further than I could by myself. That motivated me to hire the person who would become my Chief Client Officer — a move that allowed us to break through a difficult obstacle to growth.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

During challenging times, people need clarity and reassurance. Leaders can provide clarity by plainly laying out the challenges being faced, the reasons we are equipped to overcome them, and the plan of action that we will take to fight through. Providing clarity converts the fear that many employs have into action and determination. Leaders can provide reassurance by maintaining a calm and steadfast demeanor while reminding everyone that all of the hard work we have invested into making our agency strong was in preparation for difficult moments like these.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

First, to boost morale, we must always keep things positive. Find the good in every situation and focus on that. We don’t ignore the challenges, but we focus on how we are going to overcome them. We inspire team members by painting a clear vision for the future. We motivate them by telling them specifically how they can contribute to achieving the vision and how they will be rewarded. And we engage team members with consistent and clear communication on our progress as a team.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

I have found that the best way to communicate difficult news is to just say it. Everyone appreciates candor and transparency — even though it is sometimes difficult to hear. I have found that keeping these types of discussions based on facts and not emotions is the best approach.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

Obviously, no one can see the future. But there is always one thing you can count on: the next challenge is just around the corner. The only thing that we have in our control is how we prepare ourselves for the next challenge. That’s why as leaders, our plans should focus on making our teams and our organizations fundamentally sound. Because when challenging times hit, only the strongest will make it through.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

I don’t think there is a single principal that serves as a magic bullet. The fact is that most companies fail. And they don’t fail during good times, they fail during bad times. Only companies with strong foundations who have invested in every aspect of their business ultimately survive. Great products or services, great people, strong leadership, and a clear vision are just some of the basic principles that all must come together to prepare a company for difficult times. There are no short cuts.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

Over the years, I’ve seen other businesses make many mistakes during difficult times. The biggest mistake is not being prepared for difficult times in the first place — not taking advantage of the good times to prepare your team and your company for the inevitable challenges ahead. When difficult times hit, it’s important not to make a couple of very important mistakes. First, don’t panic. Panic is like blood in the water. Your team will since it. It spreads and permeates throughout your organization. Stay calm, keep it real, and keep it positive. Second, don’t pull back in “wait it out”. Take action. Meet the crisis head on. Make a plan, roll up your sleeves, and get to work.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

Be prepared. Earlier this year as the economy sank into a recession and many of our clients were pulling back on spending, we were concerned but not panicky because we had the confidence of knowing that our business was fundamentally sound with strong people, processes, and finances.

Be transparent. Throughout the recession we have continued our monthly all-agency meetings where we share everything that is happening in the agency including our finances. We don’t hide our challenges. We acknowledge them and give our teams the info they need to meet them head on.

Be positive. When we are sharing information that is not the best, it’s important to find the silver lining. Over the past few months as we’ve shared financial updates that are often under their targets, we have also pointed out the opportunities we have in front of us to finish the year strong. This gives everyone something positive to hold on to.

Be proactive. In addition to keeping a positive outlook, it’s important to be proactive. Our executive team meets monthly to review every aspect of the business. During these sessions, we identify opportunities for improvement and make plans on how to activate them. During our monthly all-agency calls, we give our team members actions they can take to help the cause. These can be small things like “how to be more efficient with your time”. But the idea is that acting dispels the feeling of helplessness in uncertain times.

Be flexible. If there is one thing I’ve learned over 25 years of leading Icon, it’s that things rarely go as planned. Early in my career that was frightening. But, over that time, I have gained the confidence of knowing that whatever happens, we have the skill, knowledge, and talent to navigate even the most treacherous situations.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Life is what you make it.

It took me a long time to realize how true that statement is. Of course, we all have different situations challenges and circumstances. But that doesn’t mean that our life and how we live at this pre-determined for us. It’s important for each of us to realize how powerful our actions, desires, and dreams are. We must have the confidence to know that we can shape our future and live the kind of life that we want.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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