A fresh perspective can be a valuable tool for taking a business to the next level, and one New Hampshire business leader has an unusual way of finding it. In 2012, Travis York, CEO of the marketing agency GYK Antler, created an "exec exchange" program that involved swapping jobs with an executive in another industry for a day. Initially the idea was to learn how to better serve client Jeremy Hitchcock, CEO of the internet performance technology provider Dyn Inc., by switching places.
"We thought it would be good to be in each other’s shoes so we could understand each other better and gain a deeper perspective," York recalls.
But the experiment turned out to be a more impactful learning tool than either man imagined. "I’m a creative brained person, and they’re technologists," York says. "I ended up gaining a lot of insight about how to code, develop, and roll out products and services. It was fascinating, and I learned things I could apply at our agency, and Jeremy learned that marketing is part art and part science."
Since then, York has swapped roles three more times, with each experience offering insights into different fields as well as ideas for challenging himself and his team.
York and his partner structure the exchange to mimic a real day in each other’s life. "We take a representative day and follow along each other’s schedule," he says. "Typically we try to schedule a few more broad tasks that help each of us get to know the organization."
The key to success is keeping it as genuine as possible, says York. "It’s a legit trade of jobs; this is not a job shadow or unrealistic experience. It’s being in each other’s shoes."
But there are a few rules: "We can’t hire or fire, or give raises," says York. "Other than that, we empower each other to do what we need to do and to make decisions."
Choosing your exchange partner wisely is vital, says York. "You have to trade with somebody you trust—someone who you aren’t afraid to see warts and all. Everything is fair game, and sometimes stuff that is more thorny or serious than you imagine comes up. You have to trust the level of confidence and discretion. And you have to be willing to work together to solve or resolve issues."
At the end of the exchange day, both organizations meet for a Q&A session within the companies where employees are invited to ask questions or give impressions of the day. "This can be pretty intense, and there are challenging conversations," says York. "You’d be surprised how candid the input can be when you’re looking for guidance from an outside party. It’s a learning experience for everybody involved."
A few weeks later, York and the other executive follow up for a one-on-one exchange of honest observations, with regular check-ins thereafter.
During York’s exec exchanges he’s met and pitched clients, negotiated deals, sat in on company meetings, and made public appearances. Each experience was an opportunity to gain new insights into other leadership styles and industries.
One exchange was with Kent Devereaux, CEO and president of the New Hampshire Institute of Art, where York gained a greater awareness of arts and culture in the community. During that day, York was taken into the archives to see the gifts that had been given to the school, such as unique books, artwork, and photographs. "It was inspiring to see the unique ways things are brought to life creatively," he says. "It helped me think about things differently."
The school also gave York a better perspective of his creative talent. "I saw how they’re getting their training and education," he says. "We now have a handful of intern slots from the school, and our own employees are getting continuing ed with things like pottery, photography, and writing classes."
Another swap was with Mark Bollman, president and founder of the Boston-based men’s fashion company Ball and Buck. One of York’s tasks was to go into the design studio to look at product concepts. "It was a unique look at how the product and manufacturing sides work," he says. "A number of discussions were about marketing, such as how to position, package, and promote the brand."
When an employee called in sick, York worked the retail store. "Mark would have had to have done that," says York. "It gave me some insight about merchandising and pushing through product."
Finally, York switched places with Matt Bonner, former forward for the San Antonio Spurs. He attended a charitable event, did the player’s workout, and had a conversation with Bonner’s agent about upcoming contract negotiations. The experience taught him about team building and work ethic and discipline.
"Being in someone else’s shoes for a day and letting them be in yours gives you a greater perspective and firsthand insight about different leadership approaches," York says. "Our job as a marketing agency is to position, package, and promote. We’re always looking for the next idea. Advertising and marketing rely on relevance. There’s no better way to meet new people and gain new experiences. It’s something you can’t know as an outsider looking in."