Charles Collie is the Founder and President of Charles | Collie. Over his career, Charles has helped businesses such as Ogilvy, Chick-fil-A, and Farm Bureau Insurance grow their people, their sales, and their impact.
We are thrilled to have had the opportunity to chat with Charles about his interesting career path from leadership roles in politics to corporate America to the world of business consulting.
Q: Where are you from?
A: I grew up on a tobacco farm in a little place called Keeling, Virginia. Keeling is a little farming community located between Danville and Halifax in Southside Virginia. Growing up there taught me the value of family and a strong work ethic. My father was a serial entrepreneur, but not your typical entrepreneur. He taught me that the greatest opportunities often come from your greatest need. For example, the high cost of farm equipment that caused my father so much frustration as a farmer became the impetus that led him to find a way to buy the local farm equipment dealership. I believe growing up as John Collie’s son gave me the real life equivalent of a Harvard MBA.
After high school, I went to Hampden-Sydney College, where I graduated with honors. I then attended law school at Emory University in Atlanta, which led me to NYC and Washington, DC, before arriving in my beloved RVA.
Q: What are you passionate about in your personal life?
A: Hands down, my family and my faith. Cheryl, my wife of 28 years is both the love of my life and my best friend. She keeps me grounded. My oldest daughter, Grace, is a teacher and just recently was married to Sam, who is a pilot and just a good all-around person. My son, Ben, is a very talented self-taught musician. He writes music as well as plays guitar, drums, keyboards, anything really. Emily, my youngest, is currently studying at the University of South Carolina and considering medical school as her next step. In high school, she danced professionally with the Richmond Ballet.
Though I love my family deeply, without my faith in God, I know my life, and my family’s life would be shallow and pale in comparison.
Q: What college did you attend and what did you study?
A: I was a political philosophy major at Hampden-Sydney College. I was lucky enough to write a paper with a professor that was published in a political philosophy journal while an undergrad. My original plan was to go to graduate school and get my doctorate in political philosophy and probably become a professor. However, my father, the farmer and entrepreneur, wondered if I could really make a good living that way, so he encouraged me to go to law school. I didn’t really want to go, so I waited until after the deadline for accepting applications to apply. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I still got into five law schools. So, I gave in and headed to Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. A few years later, once I decided not to pursue a legal career, I decided to get my master’s in political science at the University of Richmond. I guess I broke the program since they no longer offer this degree.
Q: Tell me about your early career.
A: After law school, I joined a DOJ contractor working on EPA Superfund and Medicare fraud cases. Frustrated with all the bureaucratic red tape and feeling I wasn’t making much of an impact, I jumped from the frying pan into the fire by joining a political consulting firm.
At ACMM, we worked with about 30 campaigns each political season. Everything from city council races to state legislature and governors races to congressional campaigns and one presidential campaign. Over time, I grew disillusioned as I watched the process change. When I started, most candidates knew what they believed, and our job was to help them communicate their message in a way that each segment of the electorate could understand and be attracted to. However, by the time I abandoned politics, most candidates were using micro-targeting to tell them what they should believe and stand for.
Around this time, I started my own study of branding and the essential need to build trust which originates in having a clear purpose and values. First figure out what you stand for and what you value and then figure out how to communicate those passions to people in a way they can connect with. The new tool of micro-targeting encouraged manipulation not statesmanship. It still frustrates me today.
So, I decided to try my hand in corporate America at Circuit City where I worked in marketing. My role was as a marketing liaison functioning as a link between each department within the marketing function. Mostly, I worked on several task forces that dealt with issues like fixing the national customer database, creating their first intranet, building three dimensional spreadsheets to track thousands of ads and developing their first relationship with NASCAR.
One day the CEO distributed copies of the book, Reengineering the Corporation to all managers. As I am an avid reader of business-related books, I dived right in, taking copious notes along the way. Then I started looking around for ways to apply what I learned and noticed that Circuit City had lost its focus and had allowed inefficiency and internal politics to grow like weeds in a beautiful garden. I wrote a report outlining my concerns along with proposals on how to move the company in a better direction. In the end it made more sense for me to leave than to fight a losing battle.
Shortly after making the decision to leave Circuit City I was invited to a cocktail party where I met the founder of a small international consulting firm, Sanders Consulting Group. We hit it off, and he offered me a job on the spot. Within 6 months, I became president of the firm, which I headed up for the next 7 years before I left to start the precursor of Charles | Collie. During my time at Sanders, we worked with 13 of the top 15 advertising agencies in the world, helping them win well over $1 billion in new business in one year. We also co-produced national conferences with Adweek and AdAge.
Q: In your words, what is Charles | Collie?
A: I help companies get healthy by building brand-focused cultures. Leadership and culture are my two main focuses. My practice is really about growing people and profits. A recent Harvard study of over 250 companies revealed that companies with strong cultures have a 756% net income advantage over those that don’t. What is a strong culture made up of? Only three main things: 1. A leader who is vulnerable and confident enough to admit they don’t know everything and that they need the effort and expertise of their people to succeed; 2. An environment where people feel psychologically safe to challenge each other and share their ideas without fear of reprisal; and 3. A clear and agreed to purpose. It’s simple but definitely not easy to create and sustain.
Q: How long have you been in business?
A: I’ve been consulting on my own for the last 19 years. My business has changed quite a bit over the years. I began as more of a business development and positioning consultant, pivoted to work more in strategic planning and talent development which has now morphed into a focus on leadership and culture delivered as a speaker, consultant, trainer and executive coach.
Q: What was the transition from your career to entrepreneurship like? What sparked you to start your company?
A: By the end of my time as president at Sanders Consulting Group, I was traveling much more than I was at home, and was not doing a great job as Dad to my three small children, so I was ready for a change. Interestingly enough, the day after I left, the ceiling above my office collapsed. I considered this a sign that I made a good and timely decision. It was meant to be.
For the next year, I did some consulting work on my own, but I spent most of my time catching up on being Dad and husband. Though I love my family, I think we all were soon ready for me to get back to it.
I took a position with a sales training company, then moved to a healthcare conference company, and then became a brand strategist with Martin Branding. All the while I continued doing some consulting on the side.
As my own work began to grow, I came to a point where I had to decide whether to pursue my own consulting practice or continue working as an employee. Being the son of a serial entrepreneur, I guess the answer was in my genes. Since that decision to leave the safety of working for someone else, I have had some ups and downs but would not go back and change a thing.
I’ve had the honor of providing consulting services to some great organizations (some large ones, such as Hewlett-Packard, Chick-fil-A, Lidl, State of Virginia, Virginia Farm Bureau, Capital One, Williams Mullen, University of Richmond; and some smaller ones, such as the Hampden-Sydney Wilson Center for Leadership, circle S studio, Communication Design, Logik7, Louder than Digital, Clear Creek Community Church), all with amazing people doing great work.
Q: What was the biggest surprise as a business owner from working as an employee?
A: I’ve never thought of myself as an employee even when I was one. I always tried to think as if the company I was working for was mine. I acted like an entrepreneur even though I was an employee. But there is a difference. The biggest surprise was not really a surprise. Managing the administrative side of the business has always been the most difficult for me and sometimes I neglect to prioritize it because it isn’t what I am necessarily passionate about. Thank goodness for good software and good virtual assistants.
Q: What have been the biggest challenges in growing the business? What have you done differently as a result?
A: The biggest challenge for most businesses is breaking the “Sell-Do Cycle.” It goes something like this: You spend all of your time sell, sell, selling and then you get a few clients. Now you spend all of your time do, do, doing until all of your projects are over. Then it’s back to sell, sell, selling. This cycle is vicious in that it’s like a roller coaster. You’re up and flush with cash one moment, and then all of a sudden you have no cash and hope you can last until you get another client.
The answer for me was to create an easy to maintain system that consistently builds relationships with a large number of qualified prospects so that I always have new clients in the wings. I’ve done this mainly through speaking, writing, email and social media.
Q: As a successful business owner, do you have work / life balance? How have you managed to improve the joy and fulfillment in your life?
A: I don’t believe in the traditional idea of work/life balance where you try to equally balance work life and personal life. I think there are times where you have to spend a lot of focus time on one side or the other in order to achieve what you want in both sides of your life. To me a better way to think about work/life balance is like balancing on one leg on a half ball at the gym. You never attain complete balance. Your leg and body are always adjusting to keep you from falling off. That’s what work/life balance is. Sometimes, we’re a little too much one way or the other. Maybe intentionally to accomplish something, maybe not. The point is to adjust as soon as we realize we are moving the wrong direction.
Q: What can we and others in the community do to help your business grow and be more successful?
A: I’ve been refocusing for a while now. I’ve stopped trying to be this omni consultant who says he can fix any problem you have. Today my focus is on helping organizations get healthy, growing their people and profits by being better leaders and building better cultures. I want to change the general understanding of a brand as only about marketing. To me a brand is a decision-making tool for your entire organization. It is a short and easy way to communicate who you are and why you are. In my work, this approach has transformed organizations and lives. This message needs to be spread to combat the unhealthy confusion that fills the marketplace and destroys businesses from the inside. To do this, I am looking for opportunities to speak at conferences, conduct workshops, publish articles, facilitate retreats, and participate in podcasts.
Q: What advice would give other entrepreneurs / small business owners?
A: DEFINE: Start with clarity. Clearly define your purpose, values and brand. “You attract what you DEFINE.”
ALIGN: Get your people as well as your structure, systems and processes aligned to your purpose, values and brand. “You grow when you ALIGN.”
REFINE: To remain competitive and more importantly to stay relevant, you have to constantly be aware of the changing world around you. Stand firm on your purpose, values and brand. When needed, change everything else. “You improve what you REFINE.”
And as Winston Churchill said, “Never give up!”
“How I Got Started...” is a blog series that spotlights the entrepreneurial and life journeys of various small business owners and professionals. The content of this blog was curated by members of the CreativeMktGroup team.
Charles | Collie