This partnership comes to no surprise to those who know Cohere well. Chris Richards has been an integral team member since 2012 and his dedication to our team and our clients is evident with every interaction. He’s one of those rare human beings whose actions are completely aligned with his intentions and words, which helps him to drive consistent outcomes. We are fortunate to have aligned life paths together, and it’s an honor to serve him and our projects together as we grow into this next chapter of Cohere.
Branding is the art of helping a person or place reach their full potential. At Cohere we take pride in helping our people reach their full potential during their time at our agency. Chris is no exception, in fact, he’s becoming the rule – showing others how to live up to their personal mission through our ethos. His background may surprise you, and it’s always fun in these “coming of age” moments to expose one’s story – because it’s special and unique to Chris Richards. He is very much on the path of reaching his full potential at Cohere and we are using this partnership as a way to coach his best out of him! The epitome of what Cohere prides itself on.
Tell us about your background and how you got to Cohere. Feel free to expose our embarrassing DM moment.
I found my way to Cohere (At Media back in the day!) by entering the job scene in Philadelphia after moving there with my significant other in 2012. I spent about a year working for a start-up, based entirely on Facebook and the promise of ‘social commerce’ – a buzzword that was super hot as big companies got invested in the idea of selling to people directly on social platforms. It was a time when apps were everything, and the startup I joined had a master plan to sell itself to every brand on Facebook that could utilize a social storefront to sell their items. Being a startup, my role entailed everything from sales and business development to writing new, unique blog content on a weekly basis for the company. The company’s goal was to put out enough content and attract enough readers that they could convert free accounts into paid premium members utilizing “Facebook stores” and a full ecosystem to sell things to their customers. Suffice to say, the lofty promises of startup culture at the time: “We’ll have offices soon, with ping pong! And kegs!” soon faded away. I stopped getting paid, and the reality of finding a real job set in.
Here is where the awkward DM (private message!) came into play. Because I had discovered Antoinette and her social presence on Twitter and Facebook back then, I knew she and the agency might be prime customers for the social selling platform – maybe even selling it to their clients. So, with my sales hat on, I sent Antoinette a message on Facebook. I think she ignored it or sent some tame follow-up. But, I let time pass and reached out again. By chance, that second message landed at a time when she was looking for extra help at the agency. A few more messages back and forth, and I had an interview set up for a social/content intern position. From there, it’s been nothing but growth together!
Your grandfather and father have been a big influence in your life. They are also oddly the perfect mix of experiences and interests relevant to your own career at Cohere. Entrepreneur, teacher, environmental, built-environment and team leaders - how have they shaped who you are? What values are you activating at your core that relate back to lessons you learned with them?
My grandfather was always a calming figure to me. He had such knowledge and awareness of both history and the present time, it was mind-boggling. You could sit and listen to him talk about experiences happening today and how they related to history for hours, and that wisdom was well-earned. As I grew to learn, he was a keystone member of Arlington County, VA in the 1960s and ’70s. This story does him more justice than I can – calling him the “Theodore Roosevelt for Arlington Parks and Trails” – he essentially helped to save and retain what makes Arlington County one of the most livable and desirable districts in the country through his work preserving the park system and smart development. As if that wasn’t enough, as the county board, he was instrumental in bringing the METRO to Virginia and DC. The lines that are now such a steadfast component of life in the DMV area were successful in part to his work and approach to urban development. Likewise, my father always talked about these success stories and experiences with a humble and low-key confidence that instilled in me that big things are possible, and they’re not always flashy or in your face. The combination of his entrepreneurial mindset and approach to subtle leadership has informed how I approach most all situations.
In my core, I’m activating those values I’ve experienced so organically. Leading with respect is huge. Leading by listening is key. Understanding that we’re all part of a much bigger system is important to being realistic and measured in responses to situations. My grandfather and father both serve as perfect examples of that philosophy and my natural upbringing to be strong but humble and low-key has been a common tendency of mine throughout my life.
There was this moment for me where I can point back to the time you shifted from employee to leader. In 2014 we were moving Cohere's offices, tripling in size and you looked at me and said "how can I help", and then you wrote a brilliant blog on it. I gave you a few higher level tasks that I didn't expect you to follow through with. Instead you blew me away and showed up with more commitment and results than I expected. Most of all your articulation of how moving can impact culture in your blog told me that you were poised for leadership and ready to grow to the next level.
Back then, I still had time to think about my own approach to blog content, and that was a natural extension of me just wanting to put thoughts out into the world! I’m not a very extroverted person on the surface, but I have a lot of thoughts. When you get to know me, you know that I share those thoughts in my own way – and I think the point you mention was a culmination of a lot of built-up ideas and feelings at a business and personal level. I saw the company changing right before my eyes and realized how important it had been what we went through, a huge change together – it was very physical and emotionally taxing: moving offices, changing leadership, and thinking to the future – and it was something I knew I couldn’t vocalize very well. Asking “how can I help” was my way of signaling that I’m in this for the long-run
What clicked for you during that time where you chose to rise to the occasion versus wait around for instructions?
Through my career, I’ve always worked for small businesses. The largest was a non-profit association with hundreds of employees, but I worked in a very small unit. The idea or notion of “rising to the occasion” has always been a part of my process. I don’t know how to NOT take on other tasks, or support preemptively. Waiting for instructions has never gotten me anywhere. I thrive in a startup and entrepreneurial environment and have always thought of myself as an “owner” in whatever I’m working on. Whether it’s a client’s project or working on our own business, I am empowered by the notion that I can always make a decision. Deciding to act, no matter how small of an action it is, keeps me moving forward.
What does being a partner mean to you?
With the official title of Managing Partner (which still feels funny) we are recognizing that I’m committed to the business. Being a partner means I’m invested in making something work for the long-run. Whether that’s the Cohere of today or a completely different evolution, I’m here for the decision making and conversations that keep us moving forward. What excited me about the prospect of being named Partner was that Antoinette can trust in my dedication and have peace of mind that there’s someone along for the ride. There are so many decisions, big and small, that a business owner makes each day. Sometimes that can get exhausting – So, to me, having someone else in a more equivalent/peer role really adds to the capacity and efficiency of what we can achieve together. Thinking like an owner, you can wear the hat of “does this help our company? does this advance our mission?” and start to alleviate some of the decision making from just one person. To me, that’s about helping, and that’s about providing support. As a partner, I’m not in it to help myself so much as help the company (which will help me!) That mindset hasn’t really changed since I joined, but it’s that thinking that continues to help Antoinette and others elevate themselves so they can continue helping the company too.
Being a partner is what I'd call technical recognition of my mindset that I've carried all along during my time with Antoinette and the team.Chris Richards
What does the future look like for Cohere now that you are leading it?
To me, the future is a continued evolution of doing what we’re all best at. It’s more apparent than ever that a company is just people. People all have goals, and people are all dealing with things at work and beyond that influence the day to day flow of a business. The sweet spot, in my opinion, is finding the right people – the people that just get it – and let them do their thing. Giving enough framework and structure to feel taken care of, but then giving the freedom to make decisions and learn from them. I would not be in the position I’m in if it hadn’t been for Antoinette’s willingness to let me learn, lead, and just make decisions. As a leader – I try to lead by example. I hope that people can see what I do, how I approach conversations, how I steer projects and take that as a “green light” to do the same. No one told me how to grow or lead from this position, it’s something I’ve worked into. But honestly, I haven’t ever “sought” to lead or define myself as one. I think if people take the pressure off the notion of leading, they will see that everyone can lead in their own way. You never know how much of relief you can provide by asking a simple question or tackling a small task for someone. Help people and you’re a leader. Listen to people and you’re a leader.