A Clark Leadership Interview: Dennis O’Neil

“We win, because we keep playing.”

By Dr. Kristin Backstrom

At Clark Leadership, we love to share the wisdom and life experiences of others.  We had the pleasure of interviewing Dennis O’Neil, President of ONeil Interactive.  The team at ONeil is passionate about using their knowledge of digital marketing and the homebuilding industry to bring buyers and builders together.

What did you learn from your worst job?

To this day, my worst job serves as the antihero in my business.

In the early years of my company, Clark Leadership guided me through defining the role of ONeil Interactive as it should exist, and how its impact should be felt by its employees, its customers, and others. This crystal-clear vision is an invaluable reference that guides me toward the right decisions.

At times, when I’m evaluating a business decision, I find more direct guidance by reflecting back to this worst workplace. If a decision brings me closer to the antihero, it’s obviously the wrong choice. The antihero is what I must never build, and what my company must never become.

What so far do you consider your greatest achievement?

My greatest achievement is raising two children who are independent, critical thinkers. Their ability to objectively question authority, the status quo, and especially their own beliefs, is why I am excited to see the good that they will create with their lives.

When you look at changes in business in the last 10 years, what do you notice and what has meant the most to you and your success?

Megan English, Vice President at ONeil Interactive, described our company culture as “high performance, low ego.” I believe it is this mixture of high expectations for ourselves and a humble willingness to accept what we do not know, that has guided our success.

We’re a service business supporting the home building industry. When we started in 2008, it was a phenomenally difficult time to be in the real estate business. Our earliest clients didn’t need shiny marketing. They needed saving. For ONeil Interactive to survive, we needed to support our clients by inventing new ways to accomplish more with less. We needed to be open to critical feedback and maximum accountability.

In these early years, we developed a culture where sacred cows are forbidden and every step we take is subject to rigorous internal audits to ensure maximum effectiveness for our clients. Today, despite a much more favorable market, we maintain this same approach — forever refining and recreating tomorrow’s best practices to deliver the value that lazy, big ego competitors simply cannot.

Tell me about a time you had to re-think your initial position and had to change your mind.  

Early in my professional career, I spent three years as a new car salesperson. I learned a lot of important skills in this role, but unfortunately, I also picked up a distorted expectation of client relationships.

As we all know, purchasing a car is transaction that requires no long-term relationship with a salesperson. Most car shoppers are not particularly eager to engage with a salesperson at all. The relationship is often adversarial, and the conversation is sometimes just plain disrespectful.

One day, when lamenting about a particularly mean-spirited sales prospect, the dealership’s veteran salesperson advised me that “the best way to get even [with this disrespectful car shopper] is to take their money.” At the time, his advice protected me from what felt like personal attacks on my character, and instead refocused me on my job’s KPI – selling the car.

Unfortunately, I carried some of this mindset into a business with a very different KPI – long-term customer relationships. Admittedly, I had to unlearn this lesson a few times, but over time it became clear that clients who are regularly disrespectful of myself and my employees are not the clients I am willing to keep. “Taking their money” was no longer my definition of success. Life is too short. My employees and I deserve better. Today, we politely de-hire clients like this, and wish them success with any team other than ONeil Interactive.

What is the hardest change you’ve had to make in your career?

I started ONeil Interactive as a sole proprietor, and my initial business plan included nothing more than myself and a couple support teammates. Plans change. Today, we’re a team of 23, but the original centering of “me” in every problem, every question, and every opportunity remains the hardest thing to undo in my thinking. I still find myself falling back into that trap of thinking small.

When I fail, my Clark Leadership group is there to call me out and hold me accountable. When I’m successful, I look to my team and ask, “Who is the most qualified to take this on? Who on the team should own this?”

Lee Thayer described only one test to determine if you’ve built a learning organization. He instructs the CEO to leave the business for a month. After a month away, your company should be running better than you left it. Taking this to heart, accepting it, and entrusting in others has been part of what I’ve learned through my facilitated leadership peer group at Clark Leadership. It is a big part of what is critical to our success today.

What is your motto for how you work?

“We win because we get to keep playing!”

There is no finish line. Our goal is to be, not to become. There is no final score, but simply the goal to keep playing the game.

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