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Faces of Leadership

Scott Severson

Scott Severson started out in sales, and he still calls himself a sales guy at his core. Starting with his high school job at Radio Shack, when he could tell you all about the amazing features and blazing 16-mH speed of the Tandy computer, his style has been to communicate a vision of how things could be better--then tell you how you too can be part of it. That's not a bad description of his leadership style today.

In 2006, after nearly nine years as the director of Internet business at the Minnetonka-based publishing company North American Membership Group, Severson left to become president of Hopkins digital media company ARAnet. Since then, Severson has helped grow the company's revenues by 500 percent and has been recognized as one of Finance and Commerce's Minnesotans on the Move. He describes last year's revenues as "north of $15 million." Severson says that the lessons he's learned about leadership come from both on his years of sales and his experiences as a self-taught Internet marketer.

Getting the Right People Is Half the Battle

Leading means coming up with ideas, but it also means being a cheerleader for those ideas to the people who are going to carry them out. So it's something of a cliché to say that having the right people is key to accomplishing your vision. But it's also why, for Severson, the hiring process at ARAnet is more than an HR function. He would rather the company take longer on the right hire than cut corners, only to find that someone doesn't really fit with the culture, he says.
"We meet with people multiple times to get to know them, and we try to be slower to hire because we want to make sure the person is right for the position, right for the culture, and bringing the right skills and attitude and motivations to the job," he says.

Monitor Performance But Don't Get into a Rut

Severson does what many leaders do: He makes sure that all ARAnet employees know their roles and how they help the company to achieve its objectives. He pushes his management team to help their direct reports set their own goals to help meet those objectives, and to measure their progress on a quarterly basis. "What gets measured gets done, so we're really outcome- and goal-focused at every level," Severson says.

But settling into a routine is not part of that process. "The Internet marketing space changes on a daily basis, which means that what was successful in the past may not be in the future," he says. So Severson works with his management team to create a culture where managers not only keep an eye on how people are contributing, but also help them to tweak their goals when the goalposts for the organization move.

Even If It's Hard, Find the Fun

Leadership can be exhausting, and every leader knows which parts of the role drive them nuts. But those parts can also be rewarding if you approach them with the right attitude. Look for the ways that those things can energize you as well as annoy you. "The Internet space changes really rapidly all the time, so for me, being a leader means I have to deal well with ambiguity, because there's no map for where we're going," Severson explains. "Most days, I love being a pioneer and blazing the trail with my team, but there are days when it would be great to have a signpost to tell us which way to go. But at the same time that makes me crazy, it's also a lot of fun."

Know When to Stop

Making decisions can be the scariest part of leading. Committing the organization to a course of action means committing to your own vision--and sometimes, it also means putting your credibility on the line. Severson knows it's important for him to believe in himself, but he also knows he has to be open to believing he might have chosen wrongly. "It's hard to maintain a balance between being tenacious and hanging on to make something work, and knowing when to cut your losses and move on," he says. "Not everything we do works, we're constantly trying and evolving new things, and sometimes we have to decide that we've given something enough time and we need to move in different direction."

Severson concedes that he and his management team have tried innovations that the market didn't take to or invested more than they should before pulling back to move in a different direction. For him, figuring out when to hang on and when to change direction is not only about numbers. "We certainly look at whatever quantitative data we have, but we also look at the qualitative – what are we hearing from our customers, from the market, what stories we are hearing," he says. "We're constantly monitoring both halves of that conversation."

Define Winning in Different Ways

The leader sets the pace for the organization, which is why the best leaders are equal parts strategists, cheerleaders, and salespeople, Severson says. Between being flexible, being adaptable, and wearing a lot of hats, leadership is a lot of work, and Severson believes in knowing his people and staying deeply involved, not in managing by e-mail.

So energy and motivation are key in sustaining his own internal pace. Severson explains that he gets a lot of energy and motivation from winning, and that feeling of winning helps him to fuel up for the times when things aren't as easy. Fortunately for him, winning can take a lot of different forms.

"Winning can be the validation of strategic direction; for example, when we decide to take a right instead of a left, and then learn three months later that that was the right direction to go," he says. "Landing a key account, getting feedback from an elated client, seeing employees achieve their individual goals; those are all ways to win and they make me love what I'm doing."

Holly Dolezalek's last article for The Line was a report on the Minnesota Idea Open, in our March 6, 2012 issue.
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