I recently had the extraordinary opportunity to speak with L.A. business leader, Toni Erickson Knight, founder and CEO of WorldLink, one of the country's top women-owned businesses. Toni founded multi-platform media sales firm WorldLink in Los Angeles with a four-person staff in 1997. Since then, it has grown into a global operation with offices in L.A., New York and London.
The interview that follows provides a personal glimpse into the life of a woman, mother, business leader, and self-starter as she reveals valuable tips on finding focus and balance while building and maintaining an empire with a foundation of integrity.
Toni, how did you get into this line of work?
I wanted to be in broadcast journalism and pursed that path for a while. But when I was working in news at a major cable network, it bothered me to see colleagues whose careers depended on their looks rather than their skills. So I turned my attention to ad sales to have more control over my destiny. When I worked as a sales assistant at KABC-TV in Los Angeles, our top managers left for a startup regional cable sports network called PrimeTicket. They offered to take me with them and I jumped at the chance to stay in the market. Here was the opportunity to grow by building something. Even as PrimeTicket got larger, with its acquisition by Liberty and Fox, it remained very entrepreneurial. Through that experience, it gave me a sense of what it is like to build something from scratch and the motivation to start WorldLink.
Let's discuss your leadership style. What are the most important decisions you make as CEO of WorldLink?
Strategic analysis of the rapidly changing media landscape and anticipating how it will evolve are top priorities. From there, we adapt our business models accordingly, so that we can not only survive but thrive.
How do you encourage creative thinking within your organization?
I really like to invite feedback from my wonderful staff. It's important for me to be available to every WorldLink employee. I’ve engendered an open-door policy, which ultimately leads to innovative ideas and generates new opportunities.
And, where do the great ideas come from in your organization?
With feedback from my executive team, we make certain that well thought out ideas that make sense to implement come from all levels.
As far as keys to success, what do you think are the three most important ways to succeed?
To grow a company, you have to stay focused on your core competency and strategy while not getting mired in the day-to-day minutiae of the business; hire strong people to surround yourself with by knowing your own strengths and weaknesses; and, as I’ve learned over the past 13 years, not take things personally. It is business, after all, and you have to stay focused on your strategic goals, especially in this economic storm that we’ve all encountered over the past year.
What has been your proudest professional accomplishment?
We’ve survived 13 years in a rapidly changing media landscape and still have consistently posted steady growth. Competitors have grown faster over the years, but have also died quickly. Given the adverse economic conditions and numerous industry changes we’ve encountered, I’m proudest of the creative ways in which we have been able to grow our business and continue to flourish.
As many professionals can confirm, sometimes as an organization gets larger there can be a tendency for the “institution” to dampen the “inspiration.” How do you keep this from happening?
As we’ve gone from four to more than 75 employees, we’ve had to become more corporate to maintain our standards but still keep the entrepreneurial spirit alive that allowed us to grow in the first place. To navigate in a constantly evolving business, it is absolutely necessary for everyone on our team to be inspired. So we try very hard to humanize the work environment, whether that means allowing employees to bring their kids to work or celebrating holidays in fun ways. Our ultimate goal is to constantly raise spirits and make sure the human voice still counts.
When it comes to inspiring employees, what do you rely on most — mission, core values or vision?
They’re equally important and intertwined. You have to make employees understand how their contributions can turn your vision into a reality, and how your core values should be reflected in achieving that mission. We constantly communicate all three to everyone here by holding senior management meetings with new employees, quarterly companywide staff meetings, as well as constantly reinforcing the primary message of why clients hire us. It has paid off. We are in a service business and, even though our clients can choose to go elsewhere, we’ve seen a high long-term renewal rate despite facing increased competition over the years.
How has life changed for you since you've become a business leader?
I’ve grown exponentially stronger, both personally and professionally, by starting my own company. I’m very glad I took the risk, because it has allowed me to become more confident by working without the safety net that comes with being an employee. This business has allowed me to operate outside of my comfort zone, grow up quickly and have the flexibility to strike a strong work-life balance. My family is very important to me.
For more information about WorldLink, please visit www.worldlinkmedia.com.