Andrea Heuston of Artitudes Design: “Delegating tells your team you trust them”

Delegating tells your team you trust them. When you micromanage employees, you send the message that you don’t trust them. When you delegate, you’re empowering them. Most likely you’ll get better results and more loyalty. Other than our weekly Monday check in and two set meetings during the week where the design team collaborates on […]

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Delegating tells your team you trust them. When you micromanage employees, you send the message that you don’t trust them. When you delegate, you’re empowering them. Most likely you’ll get better results and more loyalty. Other than our weekly Monday check in and two set meetings during the week where the design team collaborates on projects, everyone manages their own schedule and workflow. After that, I don’t need to check in. I trust them to do their jobs and things will get done. Do I care when they do it? No, they may be walking their child to school, at a doctor’s appointment or doing some volunteer work during work hours and that’s totally ok as long as they are meeting their deadlines and the client is happy.

As part of my series about the “How To Delegate Effectively and Be Completely Satisfied With the Results”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrea Heuston, founder and CEO of Artitudes Design based in Issaquah, Washington (a suburb of Seattle). Artitudes is a 25-year-old experiential design firm that works with Fortune 500 companies (Microsoft, Starbucks, and Expedia to name a few) as well as startups and nonprofits.

She’s had a number of life-altering events that have tested her resiliency and leadership — including being in a medically induced coma for 19 days. It was a long road back to health from her coma, and she missed over 8 months of work that year. During that time, her team stepped in and kept the company running.

Prior to this experience she was a micromanager, a control freak. She used to touch at least 80% of all projects that came through Artitudes’ doors, but because of her illness, she was forced to step back and see where she could truly add the most value to the company, and where she could let others shine with their skills and enthusiasm. It’s changed the way she operates completely. She now touches only about 20% of company’s projects and has learned how to effectively delegate.

She’s a passionate advocate for women and recently launched a podcast, Lead Like a Woman, where she interviews top women leaders as they share their stories on life and leadership. Her LinkedIn article, ‘Never Apologize for Being a Strong Woman’ became one of the most viewed articles on LinkedIn, with over 1.3 million interactions.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, 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 had originally planned to go to law school and had actually been accepted. But I got a summer internship at an energy systems engineering firm as a technical illustrator and I loved it. I ended up switching to communications and put myself through the University of Washington at night while working at the engineering firm. I worked my way up to running the creative services department and had seven designers who reported to me. When the company was purchased by a French company, they brought me in one day and said we need you to lay off your entire team as the new firm has their own team in France. At 24 I was totally unprepared for something like that. The day after I laid my team off, they laid me off. I never saw it coming. Two days later they called me back and said we made a mistake — we need to do some rebranding and we need you and a team member to come back. I decided then and there that no-one else was going to dictate my future. I jumped in my car, drove 60 minutes to Olympia, the state capitol, and got a business license. The next day I called them back and told them I’d come back and bring my teammate Sandy, but that they would be hiring my company, not me.

The other defining event in my business was my coma. In 2008, I started the year off in the emergency room. In March I had surgery. In April I had more surgery. On May 30th, I became very ill. Three days, one misdiagnosis, three emergency rooms, two ambulance rides, and one very concerned husband later, I was in surgery yet again. I didn’t wake up from that surgery for nearly 3 weeks. I had aspirated on the operating table, contracted pneumonia, which then turned into Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome or ARDS. ARDS is similar to SARS. It turns the lungs to stone. The doctors put me into a medically induced coma until my lungs could recover. At the time, ARDS had an over 70% fatality rate.

I don’t remember anything from that time. Except for some very vivid, medication-induced dreams! My husband and family remember it all. I woke up and met Dr. Stuart — the head of the hospital. (You know you’re really sick when the head of the hospital takes you on personally.) Dr. Stuart said to me, “I’m so happy to meet you because I didn’t really think I’d ever get a chance to.” I had no idea how ill I’d been until that moment. It was a long road back to health, and I missed over 8 months of work in 2008.

During that time, something amazing happened. The enthusiasm and passion I had breathed into Artitudes Design kept the company alive — without me! My incredible team of talented, creative and yes, enthusiastic heroes pulled together and saved the day. The experience changed me in many ways and one of the key things is it taught me how to let go of the little things — in life and business. It profoundly changed the way I manage and lead the company and the company is better because of it. The company would not be as successful as we are today if I had kept my old micromanaging habits.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Before incorporating I was a sole proprietor and as I was growing and getting busier, from time to time I would outsource work to freelancers/self-employed contractors. Rick was one of those. Unbeknownst to me, he was wanted for child support in two states and the IRS was after him. He listed me as his employer, so they came after me and fined me. I had the documentation to prove he was not an employee but that didn’t matter as I had let him use my space to work. (The rules are a lot different now.) I had to hire lawyers and fight it and between the lawyers’ fees and the fine, I ended up paying 47,000 dollars (and I had only paid Rick a total of 10,000 dollars.) It took years to pay it off. I vividly remember the day I got the news. I was at my desk, paralyzed and weeping. My husband had to come pick me up and take me home, I was so devastated.

At the end of the day, I loved what I was doing and I got the drive to continue because I was determined to provide a life for myself and my young family, a life that I could not have if I was working for an employer. I also liked knowing that everything I was doing I was doing for myself and my company and not adding to the bottom line of someone else’s company.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

That’s a hard one. My mistakes are always huge, but not amusing! For example, my first employee and my best friend embezzled money from me. Another employee interviewed so well that I didn’t check her references before hiring her and she ended up throwing a chair at a contractor working for us at the time and I almost got sued. They’re funny in hindsight but were no laughing matter at the time. However, I learn so much from my mistakes. They’ve taught me resilience and made me a better person and leader.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Artitudes specializes in designing and executing corporate events — from visual concepts, video, motion graphics and animation to presentation design to speaker training and support, for events from 5 to 50,000 attendees. That’s the nuts and bolts of it, and don’t get me wrong, great design is a key component of any presentation. But our secret sauce is helping speakers inspire audiences and make sure their messages land in such a way that they get the desired result. Where others might start by asking the speaker what story she wants to tell, we start by finding out as much about the audience as we can. Not in a creepy way, but we want to know what they like, what makes them do things, what are their trigger points. We do a lot of research and we show the speaker that it’s not about them, it’s about the audience. In a way we are translation experts. You can be an expert in your field and the most incredible and motivating speaker in the world, but if you’re using your language and approaching your presentation from your perspective, not the audience’s, your message won’t be heard. For example, marketers don’t understand developers’ language and developers don’t understand marketing terms. Similarly, If I go to a conference and somebody is talking about the brakes on a car, I’m going to completely tune out as I’m not a gearhead. But if somebody is talking about safety and how to make it safer, I’m going to listen.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Never be the smartest person in the room. I like to hire people who are smart and driven and who challenge me because that keeps me engaged. And then I don’t burn out because I’m excited.

Be a constant learner. A lot of people will say I don’t have time to be a constant learner. But you don’t have time not to be because if you’re not learning and progressing, you’re staying in the same place or going backwards.

Figure out what feeds your soul and make sure you’re doing it instead of just being on the hamster wheel.

What keeps your brain moving so that you’re excited? For me that’s learning and engaging in discourse.

Learn to delegate the stuff you don’t like, that doesn’t feed your soul and the stuff that’s routine that you can give up.

Find tools and strategies to help you manage your work life so you don’t get overwhelmed by the day-to-day management. I just registered for Sane Box — an email management tool. So far, I’m amazed. It divides up all my email and prioritizes them based on your email activity. It uses AI to manage your inbox. It’s already saved me hours. Same with Calendly.

I also practice time blocking. By dedicating a certain number of hours to just one task, you “block off” your time (and your mind) from other projects — and the myriad of other demands on your attention. I block time every day to answer emails and other communications. I block time for cooking. I even block time for exercise. It’s important for me to get each of those things done each day so I create space in my calendar that can’t be taken up by something else. It’s a nice way to be productive but also helps create your priorities. I walk for at least an hour every day — that time is sacrosanct, vital for my mental and physical well-being and my creativity– and my family and team know it.

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?

My Grandma Gerry was a powerful woman for her time. She raised two boys on her own after her husband left her. She needed to work so marched down to Boeing and got a job operating a huge computer back in the day when computers were the size of a room. She worked full time and worked her butt off to raise her children in the 40s and 50s.

When I spoke to my grandmother about starting my own business, she was hugely supportive. She loaned me 5,000 dollars to start the business which was a huge amount of money to her. I paid her back, with interest. She insisted on interest. Smart lady.

She was a very powerful force in my life for a very long time. She was never a victim. I really respect that about her. A lot of people are victims in this world, and they look at life as being bad to them. That wasn’t my grandmother. She owned her own experience and pulled her own bootstraps up. She was also very opinionated back when women weren’t allowed to have opinions. Whether or not she and I agreed on everything, and we didn’t, I looked up to her and valued everything she said. I had the honor and privilege of living with her as a young adult when she was recovering from rotator cuff surgery. It was such an incredible six months. It was at the time when I was becoming who I am and looking at life differently than my parents had shown me. And my grandma believed I could do anything, literally anything. She was my biggest supporter.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Delegating effectively is a challenge for many leaders. Let’s put first things first. Can you help articulate to our readers a few reasons why delegating is such an important skill for a leader or a business owner to develop?

Delegating frees you up to do what you’re best at. Period. Your highest and best use. My highest and best use is not entering payroll numbers. My highest and best use is not invoicing clients. My personal highest and best use is interfacing with clients and selling. And ensuring that my team is happy. I can’t do that if I don’t delegate.

I believe every company has two needs: an innovator and an integrator, in some way shape or form. The innovator has the ideas and they’re passionate. But a lot of times they are the ones that say “squirrel!” because they’re distracted. I get new ideas every day. The integrator looks at those ideas and figures out what needs to be done and a way to get them done. They get stuff done. And they do it well. I have Carrie, my amazing executive assistant and business operations manager and John my VP of Operations as my integrators. I say things like ‘this is so cool’, ‘I want to do this’, ‘look at what this would do for us’, and they take it and run with it. Some business owners are the opposite — they’re the integrator and they need an innovator. There’s a yin to every yang. Figure out what you need. And if you can’t afford to do that, yet, you need to figure out what gives you joy, what moves you and the company forward and do those things first and delegate the rest.

Can you help articulate a few of the reasons why delegating is such a challenge for so many people?

It’sthe belief that nobody else can do it better. And the fear of giving up control. It was a challenge for me until I had no choice but to delegate, thanks to the coma. In my case, because I started the company and all the clients knew me and depended on me, I thought I was the best person to do it all, nobody could it better or faster. The problem with that is I became the bottle neck, there was only one of me.

A case in point was a big event we did in Atlanta for a client a couple of years after I incorporated. I took a team of four with me, who were great and very capable, but even so I ended up working 28 hours straight because the clients wanted to interface with me, not the team. I had not done a good job of making the clients comfortable with the team prior to the event. I had established the company around myself, so they thought the only person who could do the stuff they wanted was me. And it wasn’t true. But it was what was visible, so it was what people thought.

Believe it or not, that actually wasn’t the tipping point. The tipping point was when I was ill and literally couldn’t do anything. Although the team stepped up and did an amazing job keeping the company running, we still lost clients while I was out as I had not learned to delegate at that point. Everything funneled thru me, every time off request, every check had to be signed by me, every client met with me. It was unsustainable.

In your opinion, what pivots need to be made, either in perspective or in work habits, to help alleviate some of the challenges you mentioned?

Perspective: You need to give up the belief that your way is the only way or the right way. You have to realize you hire good people for a reason and then step back, trust them, and let them do their jobs. There’s magic in letting them do their job and watching them shine. Otherwise, if you’re micromanaging the process, you’re going to lose the good people. There’s a reason you hired that person. Trust it. That was a hard thing for me to learn.

In terms of work habits, figure out what you can give up responsibility for and are there tools that can streamline your workflow. For example, Carrie, my business operations manager gets automatically copied on all my emails. At the beginning of very week, she sends me a list of everything that needs to be taken care of. I don’t need to think through everything or get bogged down in my inbox. She’s also in charge of my calendar and booking meetings and events, as I have a tendency to double- or triple-book myself. By abdicating that responsibility to Carrie, I have a more efficient schedule that allows me to focus my efforts and energy on bigger picture things.

I also use the Covey Time Management Matrix as a framework for prioritizing my time and tasks. Anything in the ‘urgent but not important’ and ‘not urgent and not important’ quadrants I delegate.

Can you please share your “Five Things You Need To Know To Delegate Effectively and Be Completely Satisfied With the Results?” Please share a story or an example for each.

Delegating doesn’t mean giving up total control. You just need to pick your insertion points.

My first employee — the office manager — didn’t work out. It was only after I fired her that I discovered she’d been embezzling from me, and the bookkeeper — who had had been my maid of honor at my wedding — was party to it, knowingly signing false expense reports. I signed a lot of checks not knowing what I was signing for. It was a lesson to learn, that I needed to be on top of finances and I couldn’t even trust somebody who I believed was my best friend. However, despite that awful experience I now delegate a lot of the company’s financial operations- the daily billing, invoicing, taxes and bookkeeping. But that doesn’t mean I’m not on top of the overall financial health of the company — I still sign every check which keeps me in touch with what’s going on and I review regular reports from the bookkeeper. This way I don’t have to worry about or waste my time on the little things, but I still haven’t given up total control. Figure out where to insert yourself in a process that will give you peace of mind but not bog you down in the little details.

Delegating and communicating go hand in hand.

When you delegate, setting clear expectations and guidelines is key. You can’t just say, ‘here, this project’s yours, take it and run with it.’ We meet as a full team every Monday morning to talk about the week ahead, ongoing and upcoming client projects, assign roles and responsibilities and define time factors. We make sure everyone has a clear understanding of what’s expected, what the client expects, and the tools they need to be successful. Delegating without going through these steps can mean that you’re setting employees up for failure. It also ensures you won’t be unnecessarily pulled back into projects.

Hire smarter people than you with complementary skill sets and delegating will be easy.

Don’t make the mistake I did early on — hiring people like me. One of my early hires — Michael — was intelligent, creative, driven and good with customers. When I hired him, I didn’t realize it was like looking in the mirror. And since we shared the same strengths, I always thought I knew best and wanted to direct him. I also didn’t need to duplicate my talents, I needed to hire for complementary skill sets and people who do things better than I do. When you do that, you’ll find you want to delegate as you have the confidence that they will do amazing things and you’ll want to see what they can do.

Delegating tells your team you trust them.

When you micromanage employees, you send the message that you don’t trust them. When you delegate, you’re empowering them. Most likely you’ll get better results and more loyalty. Other than our weekly Monday check in and two set meetings during the week where the design team collaborates on projects, everyone manages their own schedule and workflow. After that, I don’t need to check in. I trust them to do their jobs and things will get done. Do I care when they do it? No, they may be walking their child to school, at a doctor’s appointment or doing some volunteer work during work hours and that’s totally ok as long as they are meeting their deadlines and the client is happy.

Micromanagement is not leadership, delegating is.

A business coach once told me that the best business owners and CEOs divorce themselves from running the day to day. I remember thinking that’s insane, how could I possibly do that? It took my coma to make me realize he was right! Instead of me being at the center of every conversation I could be secondary or tertiary and trust my team to do their jobs. That was a big, big thing for me.

One of the obstacles to proper delegating is the oft quoted cliche “If you want something done right do it yourself.” Is this saying true? Is it false? Is there a way to reconcile it with the importance of delegating?

It’s false, ABSOLUTELY false! Because you know what, you may not be right. The pit that a lot of CEOs fall into is that a lot of us started our companies because we are really good at what we do. Which is great. However, there are other people out there who are better than you at certain things. And/or may challenge your way of doing things. In fact, you want people to challenge you and not be upset when they do. It’s been a big learning lesson for me. I used to be upset when employees challenged me. Now I understand that they’re doing it because they’re trying to improve things. And my way is not always the best way. We’ve had lots of company processes that have been improved because employees challenged me.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could inspire a movement, it would be around the idea that feminism is stronger when all people support it — all genders, all colors, all political parties. When women rise, society benefits. Closing the gender gap in pay and societal roles can raise the GDP by 35%, according to the World Economic Forum. There is a rising tide for equality and even equity in gender roles. I believe that it needs to be bigger, louder, and bolder in order to see some sort of parity within the next 100 years.

I’m passionate about empowering women to empower others and that’s really what I’m trying to do with my podcast. I believe fully that when we listen to women, we get a fuller story than when we listen to men. And that’s not to say that men’s ideas and voices are wrong or bad. That’s not at all what I’m trying to say. Rather, women have a different insight and different approach to things, and if we can inspire women to empower other people, the world will be a better place. Mainly because they will be listened to on a different level. Women see things that men don’t see because they’re deeper into the trenches generally of their lives, their families’ lives., of anywhere where the fringes are in society. Women when they get together can do incredible things. Men can, but there’s a little more jockeying.

How can our readers further follow you online?


Lead Like a Woman:

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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