Developing Your Executive Leadership Team with Jeff Hilimire at Dragon Army

Mastering the art of developing your executive leadership team requires many skills. The leaders that you hire to support you in the journey to growth are usually competent and full of experience. This can be an advantage or a disadvantage. Developing your executive leadership team the right way is essential if you want to reach the company’s potential. Today’s guest is Jeff Hilimire, CEO and co-founder of Dragon Army. Jeff is a serial entrepreneur with multiple exits. Jeff is also the author of The 5-Day Turnaround. Dragon Army is an Atlanta-based mobile and innovation company that helps clients navigate today’s connected landscape. We look at developing your executive leadership team in depth. Jeff shares how we have been able to create strong teams at the executive level. Jeff and I go way back, and it is an honor to have him back on the podcast.

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About: Jeff Hilimire is the Dragon Army is a purpose-driven digital engagement company based in Atlanta. Clients include American Cancer Society, Chick-fil-A, Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, HoneyBaked Ham, IHG, The Home Depot, and many others. Dragon Army is a purpose-driven company that builds and grows admired brands through digital engagement. Our passionate, tenured innovation strategists, designers, writers, and developers create remarkable products and experiences that help the world’s best companies to capture opportunities and solve problems.

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Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Jeff Hilimire
When I’ve struggled in my companies, and when we’ve had hardships, it’s because we weren’t trusting each other. And we weren’t having honest dialogue. And we weren’t confiding in each other. We worked really hard on that concept. I’ll tell youThe Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni is like the best book, I think, to read on building a trusting team. When you have trust, especially like this year with, with, you know, the pandemic, and everything that came along with that, having a team and I would say top to bottom and dragon army, we worked on this. So I feel like our whole team trusts each other. And so they were able to be there for each other, they were able to hear each other out. That’s just so important. It’s the SOP, can be seen as a soft skill. But to me, it’s more important than TPS reports and rocks and all the things that people do from a leadership perspective. If you can’t build trust, then doesn’t matter what else you.

Intro [0:55]
Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the one and only place where you will get insight from the founders and the CEOs, the fastest-growing privately held companies. I am the host, my name is Gene Hammett, I hope leaders and their teams navigate the defining moments of their growth. Are you ready to grow?

Gene Hammett [1:12]
Do you have an executive team? Do you want them to play at a higher level together? Do you want them to become strong leaders? Do you want them to truly connect with their team? Do you want to build trust and well, optimizing your executive team is all about this whole series. Today, we’re gonna be talking with Jeff Hilimire. Jeff’s got a long history of success inside of digital agencies. His most recent venture is in Dragon army, he talks about some of the charity work he’s actually been able to do, because of what he’s created with his executive team. Today, we’re going to talk about how he sees the executive team what his real role as a leader and CEO of this company is. And you might be surprised, because it’s not what you are probably doing. And he shares everything he can inside of our interview about how you can optimize your team, what the core principles are, some of the things that we talk about, will absolutely help you as a leader, but also help you optimize the team that is leading all the people across the company.

Gene Hammett [2:14]
So in this series about optimizing your executive team, we get to the heart of it. And all of these episodes are for you to be a stronger, more influential, visionary leader, like your team deserves. So when you think about your journey of leadership, and you have any questions, you want to roadmap, make sure you think about what we’re doing and creating here on this podcast, I’d love to help you go to Gene, for any free resources that you feel like would help you be a stronger leader. But if you want to take it a step further, I’d love to offer you a chance to sit down with me create your roadmap or game plan will help you create the place for you to be the leader that you really want to be just go to Jean and go and sign up today to start your journey with me. Now, here is the interview with Jeff.

Gene Hammett [2:58]
Hello, Jeff, how are you?

Jeff Hilimire [3:00]
I’m doing great Gene, how are you?

Gene Hammett [3:02]
I am fantastic. You’ve been on the show, maybe more than anybody ever?

Jeff Hilimire [3:06]
Oh, well, thanks. I hey, look, I’m here when you need me. I love our conversations. Like we said, we might as well hit record, we’re chatting anyway.

Gene Hammett [3:12]
We chatted for probably 15 minutes more than and we could have recorded that. But Jeff, you have had a long history of success through the digital agencies that you’ve run and what you’re doing. You have success in the nonprofit world. tell our audience what you really want them to know about you and what you’re up to now.

Jeff Hilimire [3:31]
Oh, great. Yeah. So, you know, I, I think that, you know, what I’m trying to do is make a an outsized, positive impact on the world. That’s, that’s my purpose. And so I do that through dragon army, which is my for-profit digital agency. I do that through three nonprofits that I that I started in run 48 and 48, ripples of hope and the a pledge. And you know, I try to do that through some writing, and some blogging and so forth. So anyway, someone wants to get involved if they want to do a little good. And those sound exciting. I’d love to hear from them.

Gene Hammett [4:03]
Well, perfect. I have had you on here to talk about 4848. One of the big things that you guys were doing there, and I guess you’re continuing to ask because you actually did a virtual version of this through through the COVID times. Tell us just a briefly about that.

Jeff Hilimire [4:17]
Yep, so 48 and 48. Up until this year, we had put on 20 hackathons bringing together hundreds of volunteers for each to build 48 nonprofit websites in 48 hours, and then COVID hit and not only can you not do big in person, you know overnight events anymore, but almost all of our sponsors, you know, backed out because they were paying for the event. So we pivoted for the first time we did a couple of virtual events. We did that during the summer they worked out. Then we did an event with statefarm which was a little bit bigger, all virtual. So then in October, which is always our big annual event. We said let’s just do a virtual one. We had about 500 people from 15 different countries around the world. We had teams In Africa participating and 48 and 48, we built actually built 63 websites that weekend. So it turned out to be one of the more successful events we’ve ever had. And now we know how to do virtual events, you know, we were forced to, we did it. And now in the future, it’ll probably probably be hybrid. So, you know, we’ll look back at COVID. And, yeah, we took a huge cut in revenue and had to slim our team down at 48. But we’re gonna have a bright future now that we’ve been forced to evolve.

Gene Hammett [5:25]
Which is, I’m seeing that across many industries. And I think that’s us as entrepreneurs, we have to look at the opportunity that this provides us not just the downsides of not being together, but what what is available to us. You’ve also been had a lot of success with Dragon army, you didn’t you didn’t mention that, which is, you know, on the heels of the other companies you’ve sold over the years. So I really appreciate you being here to talk about all things and leadership and culture, because that’s really near and dear to your heart. Why do you think leadership is so important to building a business and building an organization that makes an impact?

Jeff Hilimire [6:00]
I think leadership is the most important part of a business. I mean, if you think about, you think about a company is starting, and you’ve got either the idea, or the leader, starting it, I’m placing all my money on the leader, I don’t know, I don’t care what the idea is, to be honest, if it’s the right leader, they will find a path forward, they will, they will understand how to build a team, bring them along, take care of that team. So to me, when I think about like the skill set that I continue to try to hone, it’s to be a better leader. And with Dragon army growing most of my job is to help nurture our leaders on that team, to be better leaders themselves. And as you know, once you start leading, and you’re a manager and a director, almost all of your time is spent doing the job. In our case, it would be like overseeing a big website build very little of your time typically is spent learning how to actually be a better leader. So for me, it’s been a continuous. Quarterly, we do a quarterly off-site, I have them read a leadership book, each quarter, we’re working on principles. So most of the things I talked to my team are about our leadership principles.

Commercial [7:07]
Jeff just said, leadership is the most important thing. Well, a lot of people don’t believe that leadership isn’t as important as the product or the service. But here’s the thing I want you to think about. You are developing a group of people that are there to take care of the challenges, take care of anything that comes up to innovate their way forward. And to also serve the customers, you want to make sure that they are the leaders that they could be that they are leading their teams in a place that allows them to do their best work, because this is the highest form of success inside of a company is creating more leaders, not just more followers, not just more doers, creating leaders is your job as a CEO, I just want to put a reminder in here for you that leadership is the most important thing for you to grow your business. Back to Jeff.

Gene Hammett [7:58]
Well, I appreciate you giving us that context. Today, we’re going to be talking deeply about, you know, really optimizing your executive team. How many people are on your executive team, Jeff?

Jeff Hilimire [8:10]
We have five other than myself.

Gene Hammett [8:12]
And you would just share with me that you had decided to promote one employee to precedent of this and tell us a little bit why you would promote someone now?

Jeff Hilimire [8:23]
Yeah. So Jen Leahy, I’ve worked with her for five years, the dragon army, and then several years before at my last company, and she is she’s always been an incredible leader. And more and more, I started to realize that she’s actually better at running the day to day of Dragon army than I am. It’s the it’s really the first time I’ve promoted someone to that level in any of my companies where it’s like, you know what, you should actually have your hand on the steering wheel at this point. And I’ll support you. So, you know, I’m still CEO, and I’m going to focus a little more on thought leadership and our purpose and so forth. But I’m going to be her partner, and I’m gonna, I’m gonna follow her lead. She was ready for it, though. She’d been working on things over the years. You know, she hadn’t done a lot of financial analysis. She’s been doing that for years now with us. But she’s so amazing. She deserved it. And it’s time to give her a chance.

Gene Hammett [9:15]
How many employees? Do you have a Dragon Army?

Jeff Hilimire [9:17]
We’re just under 30.

Gene Hammett [9:18]
So a fairly small team that you are doing this, you have a team of five on the executive team. And, you know, a lot of I think executives struggle with how do we work together as a team. So what are the core principles that you’ve lived by, that have worked to help your team align, work together and create the kind of, you know, the team and leadership that you want?

Jeff Hilimire [9:41]
Yeah, it all boils down to trust. When I’ve when I’ve struggled in my companies, and when we’ve had hardships, it’s because we weren’t trusting each other. And we weren’t having honest dialogue, and we weren’t confiding in each other. We worked really hard on that concept. I’ll tell you the Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni is like the best book, I think, to read on building a trusting team. When you have trust, especially like this year with with, you know, the pandemic, and everything that came along with that, having a team and I would say top to bottom, and dragon army, we work on this. So I feel like our whole team trusts each other. And so they were able to be there for each other, they were able to hear each other out. That’s just so important. It’s the soft, it can be seen as a soft skill. But to me, it’s more important than TPS reports and rocks and all the things that people do from a leadership perspective, if you can’t build trust, then doesn’t matter, whatever.

Commercial [10:38]
Now, hold on for a second, let’s put a spotlight on this thing, trust Jeff just talked about, when it all comes down to trust, you, as a team leader want to create a space where people feel psychologically safe, and you want them to feel no judgement about, you know, raising their hand and saying we’ve got a problem here. Because if their fear of failure, if their fear of they’re going to be fired, is overwhelming them so that they don’t raise their hand. It’s because they don’t trust you. And so your job is to create that space for trust. It is the leadership’s job to lead the way and lead by example, here, you’ve got to create the kind of trust when you think about your ability to have each person on the team, engage with you differently, but trust you at the highest levels possible. That is one of the key outputs of your work as a leader is to increase that level of trust is so important that I’m taking the time to talk to you about it over and over and over here. One way to improve your trust with across your team is to have deep conversations around the things that they care about. But also make promises to them. Make small promises, make big promises, but stand by those promises, no matter what. demonstrate to them, that they can trust you and that you trust them. That is what I want to remind you of today. Back to Jeff.

Gene Hammett [11:56]
I know you threw out some words there that I’m familiar with because of the context. But do you have a set structure and frameworks that you use inside the teams that keep you guys focused on the goals focus on objectives? And what is that framework?

Jeff Hilimire [12:11]
Yep, so we have two things that we do that help us. The first is what I call PV TV purpose, vision tenants, and values. These are the things that guide the behavior that reminded us why we’re on this journey. So PVT, it’s in both of the books that I wrote. And then the second is the great game of business, which aligns our finances together and open-book management, allows everybody on the team to see the numbers understand them, we’re all working together. One of the things, you know, I played college tennis, and ever since I left college and started my first business, I always miss that, that team atmosphere that’s just so inherent when you’re, you know, on playing any sport, where everybody knows their role, everybody knows what the score is, everybody knows what you’re trying to accomplish. But you go to most companies, and they can’t answer almost any of those questions. You know, if you go to a digital agency like mine, and you grab a graphic designer, and you say to them, how’s the company performing this year? How did you help the company hit that revenue goal? That’s like seems like an impossible thing to answer. But the great game of business gives us structure to be able to have those conversations and so pptv plus the great game I think is like the killer combination to to create a fast-growing trusting team.

Gene Hammett [13:29]
You’ve probably I could probably do this with you and I would feel confident I could walk into your office, I know where you are. And I could come up to someone and introduce myself and say, you know, ask those specific questions. Is that something you do on a regular basis a as you engage with people?

Jeff Hilimire [13:44]
You mean you mean to have them ask people in my company that question?

Gene Hammett [13:47]
Oh, this just that you could walk around and kind of connect with them about what’s going on.

Jeff Hilimire [13:51]
You know, we have as part of the gate great game, we have a weekly huddle every Wednesday and we go over every single time our PVC TV so all my entire leadership team can verbatim you know, by memory repeat our purpose vision tenants, and values. Several people in the company can and don’t require that of the whole company but we give them you know, surprises if they do it. So we’re calling every single huddle, we’re repeating repeating repeating we find every opportunity to bring those to life. And then the great game again, we hit it every Wednesday and they’re a part of creating it. So we just got done with the budgeting process and building the great game for 2021 and they were a part of it. So we’re always reinforcing that’s critical. That’s critical to constantly be finding different avenues and channels to bring that to people’s minds and attention.

Gene Hammett [14:36]
I don’t want to skip this because people may not be familiar with the tenants that you’ve been talking about. So what are the tenants inside of your pptv?

Jeff Hilimire [14:45]
Yeah, so the purpose is why we exist in a dragon army that’s to inspire happiness through positive relationships, impactful work, and doing good. Our vision that’s the company we want to become so we want to be sought after by the world’s best companies for our creative problem-solving. tenants are what if we do them, we’re going to achieve that vision. So the vision and the tenants, so you can think about those as like three to five year, windows, the purpose should really stay the same. If you got it right almost forever, no matter what you’re doing as a business, your purpose really should stay the same, and then your values at the bottom should stay the same. So So again, our vision is to be sought after by the world’s best companies for creative problem solving, we will do that by is the tenants attracting retaining exceptional people building remarkable products and experiences, and striving for operational excellence.

Jeff Hilimire [15:31]
So if you just boil those down, we want to have awesome people and keep them, we want to build great products, and we want to strive for operational excellence, we want to be profitable, we want to be healthy. And it’s through those three lenses that we’re able to every Wednesday, talk to the team reinforce those things. We talked about sort of a flywheel of how those all work together. So those are the core I like to keep it simple. And you know, if you want basic, but just keep reminding people of why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Gene Hammett [15:58]
Your job is as the CEO of Dragon Army, and probably even your other organizations is not what most people do you see it a little bit differently, you’re focused on developing the leadership skills, the capacity of those people. And really, if we get specific, you’re developing those people to take care of the projects, the work the customers, and grow the company, even when you’re not there is telling us you know why you see your role is that.

Jeff Hilimire [16:27]
It’s interesting, you ended with that, because to me, if I can build a company that I can step away from, and it can continue at least for some length of time, then I know that I’ve done my job, if the company is reliant on me, then that means several things. First of all, it means I’m not giving enough people enough chances to get better and evolve at their jobs if I’m the critical piece. First of all, that’s a huge risk factor, right to accompany if one person is so important. But I’m not I need to make sure that I’m giving and delegating and giving people a chance to get better at what they’re doing. And so I try not to hold on to almost anything, I see it as my job too.

Jeff Hilimire [17:06]
If you read, setting the table, a fantastic business book, he talks about the concept of your job as the leader is to and he uses an example of a table in a salt shaker. And he says you put that salt shaker in the middle and you say this is our vision, this is where we’re headed. And it’s your job, as you see that start to move off into a different direction, you move back to the middle and remind everybody No, no, no, no, don’t go that way. This is our path. This is our North Star. And so to me, the more I’m able to do that and focus our culture and our purpose in the right place. My goal then becomes how do I build leaders that can run the thing without me honestly like if I get involved too much now at dragon army, I mess stuff up.

Gene Hammett [17:43]
I have I don’t know what your day looks like. And we’ve just wrapped up a series of optimizing your time. And I’m a little bit kind of shaken. Every time I hear a leader say I don’t have time to think and the reason being is because they’re in so many meetings. Yep. And many times they’re in really good meetings. I had a guy that just talked to me, he measures how many are internal and external. And he’s having 60% internal because he’s developing people. But if you over-schedule yourself, are you do you feel like you’re over-scheduled and don’t have space to think.

Jeff Hilimire [18:15]
So Gene to me, you will never hear me say, I don’t have time for blank, you may hear me say I don’t make time for blank. But I will never say I don’t have time. Because it’s up to me how I choose to use my time. I think that a leader that and most leaders that both you and I know say that they’ll say oh, I don’t have time to stay up on the industry or I don’t have time to write but I know it’s important to me that that’s a sign of immaturity. As a leader, it’s fine to say I don’t take the time it’s fine to say I choose to be in all the meetings. That’s fine. But I think that’s a big evolution for a leader is to just switch that one word I don’t make time for any, you’ll find that my schedule has probably 30 to 40% of each week is empty.

Jeff Hilimire [19:04]
I have worked hard to get it to that point. I have areas of my calendar I try never to block because to me I need to be available I either available to help solve problems. If something comes up what kind of leader Am I if I’m booked through the week in a team member has a big problem on Tuesday. So there’s that’s part of it, but also having space to think we you have to just have a little bit of space to sit down and breathe and go. Alright, let me reflect on this thing. If you’re in the middle of it just constantly running like a hamster on a wheel. You’re never going to make progress.

Gene Hammett [19:36]
Jeff, I want to start landing our conversation here by looking very specifically at some of the conversations you have that allow you to optimize your executive team. I’m sure you’ve had to have difficult conversations. I’m sure you’ve had conversations where you had to get really candid with people. When you think about your job as the leader developing these other leaders, what would we see you doing?

Jeff Hilimire [20:02]
I think asking why is a great tool. So so so one of the things that, you know, my team, this is interesting, Gene is the first company I’ve run and I’ve had Dragon Army for over seven years now is the first company I’ve run where people really, really care to the point where they overwork, even though I don’t want them to, especially my leaders, my leaders care about dragon army so much that they even when I’m telling them, please don’t work this weekend, they still do it because they’re trying to take something off someone’s played or so that, you know when they start talking to me about a problem like that I’m overworked. Well, then you say why? And then they say, well, because I didn’t do X, Y, and Z. Well, why? Well, and eventually you get to the truth. So to me, it’s more about it’s almost like therapy. And I know that sort of comes with coaching. And I know you’re one of Atlanta’s best coaches. And so, you know, I’m sure you ask a lot of questions. And that’s sort of what I try to do is usually they know the answer. These are smart individuals. So I’m not I’m just trying to course correct. And help them see a truth that maybe they just can’t see because the windows are foggy, but it’s there.

Gene Hammett [21:17]
Is this coaching style natural to you is you have to learn it.

Jeff Hilimire [21:22]
That’s a great question, I probably had to learn it somewhat over time, I’ve had some great mentors. And then I’ve had some great coaches like, you know, playing tennis. And so I saw them lead by example, I saw them, nurture the team members. So part of it I probably saw as a young person, but then I’d probably have had to learn and look, I’m not saying I’m amazing at it. I’m not sure there are things my team would tell you. But I try really hard to be a good listener. And be empathetic to the challenges that my team has.

Gene Hammett [21:53]
Giving that our last question here today, Jeff is, and don’t go into anything that you don’t want to share with us. But what are you working on right now to be a better leader for your team?

Jeff Hilimire [22:05]
What I think I’m trying to do is really push over this next year for the dragon army to be a force for good. So I’m a big believer that business should be a force for good that in fact, in this day and age with all the turmoil and the disagreements, the government has a really hard time getting anything done, nonprofits are underfunded, and under-supported. Religion seems to only divide people, but business can actually bring people together around a cause and bring people together to make real change. Dragon army, I am proud of what we have done over the years. But it’s time for us to do even more and really start leaning into how do we make an impact specifically in diversity, equity and inclusion in our industry.

Jeff Hilimire [22:51]
So I see it as a bit of my job to continue to prove to my team that you can, you can do well, by doing good, that if I as the CEO focus a lot of my time on certain nonprofits, that our business will actually grow from that. And hey, by the way, we’ll all feel good. And we’re actually going to be doing something meaningful other than our day job. So that’s, that’s the challenge that I have is to continue to find that balance between using my resources to try to help and then using my resources to actually work within the business. So that’s what I’ll be focused on. And I hope it turns out, well,

Commercial [23:36]
Hold on for a second, I want to remind you if you haven’t already subscribed on YouTube, we have a channel over there to help you be the visionary leader that you really want to be, we put some content that you won’t find anywhere else on the YouTube channel because it’s better for video. So if you’ll go to, you can see the content, you can subscribe, you can even give me a thumbs up. So if you’d like the content, and you can do that, right now?

Gene Hammett [24:00]
I have a lot of conversations with leaders that are successful, they get to a point where they’re like, you know, what, where am I giving back. And it’s a shame to think that they have to sell their companies and you agree with me on this, that they have to, you know, wait for something big to happen before they can create that space. Whereas probably one of the best things they can do is to let their team lead develop them, but also look at other areas outside where they are and maybe even bring the company into it. That’s what you’re describing. Let’s wrap this up with you’ve talked about 48 and 48. I know you’re working with Adam Walker, one of my good friends on that. You guys started out together. Fantastic. But you have two other nonprofits that your work with just give us a brief synopsis of those and we’ll wrap up today.

Jeff Hilimire [24:44]
Yeah, well, the first ripples of hope which I started in 2019 are almost exactly what we’ve been talking about. It’s my belief that most leaders of small nonprofits are not doing that job because they saw themselves as a CEO or because they hadn’t yet, you know, got their MBA from Harvard, they did it because they saw, they had a passion for helping people experiencing homelessness. And they decided to dedicate their lives to it. And how amazing is that? And now they find themselves running a four-person underfunded team. And they don’t know how to lead, they’ve never had any experience in that. So ripples of hope, if you boil it down is a program to try to help nonprofit leaders be the best leader that they can be.

Jeff Hilimire [25:27]
So that’s it’s a bit of a mentorship nonprofit. And then the pledge, which is something I started actually, with my capacity and a couple of other people here in town is a commitment to really work on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the advertising industry. And so it’s a commitment that agencies in Atlanta are making to work to match the diversity of their team to that of our city by 2030. So over the next 10 years, they’ll have to be a lot of change to happen to make that reality, because most agencies are 90%, white, and our cities around 60%. Black. So why is that? And it opens up all these really interesting questions with all these leaders. And so that’s a push that I think we’ll see. We’ll see a big impact, but it’s gonna take some time. So yeah, ripples of hope in the pledge.

Gene Hammett [26:20]
Love it. Jeff, you’ve always really brought value and insight to the conversation here. This is all been about, you know, how do you as a leader, optimize your executive team, we touched on a lot of other things. But we really got to the heart of the way you think about leadership. So thanks for sharing.

Jeff Hilimire [26:35]
Yeah, thanks for having me, Gene, anytime.

Gene Hammett [26:37]
So this wraps up an incredible conversation with another founder, CEO of a fast-growing company who really cares about people just as much as the product and the customers they’re serving and people inside of it, the culture that we bring, hopefully, you’re taking the insights that you have learned today and using them. If you have any questions about how you’re evolving as a leader, I think you should have a game plan. I think she has a roadmap that allows you to know what your next step is. If you want me to help you with that, just go to You can go start your journey, and we can get together, get on the phone, create that roadmap, if you will, and figure out what’s next for you. I can promise you, you’ll find some insights in that conversation, absolutely free love to serve you. When you think about growth and you think about leadership think of Growth Think Tank, as always lead with courage, well see you next time.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Growth Think Tank with Jeff Hilimire



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