Six Thoughts on Leading Agency Teams

Agency people can be notoriously difficult to lead. We’re hired for our self-confidence, after all, we’re not lacking for a sense of purpose or the ability to influence others.  We’ll chart our own course, thanks very much, and the rest of you can either follow or get out of the way.

And while few of us doubt our right or capacity to lead, each of us will reach a moment at some point in our careers when we need a little inspiration on how to lead. I’ve reached many such moments, in fact, so I’ve begun jotting down lessons gleaned not from my own experience as a leader at the front, but as a follower in the back – real-life demonstrations of good leadership that have stuck with me over the years, setting standards I still find challenging (or downright elusive).

I shared a few of these with the leaders of our largest European client engagements at a recent meeting in Istanbul, and I’m happy to relay them here, too:

  • To thine own self be true. I heard a real-life turban-wearing bearded guru speak at a conference in India a few years ago and his simple message on leadership? Get your own head on straight if you want anyone else to listen or follow.  Easy to say, hard to do.  My interpretation: agency leaders often think their leadership comes from their authority – their title, seniority or position – when in fact it comes from within. You cannot expect others to follow if you’re not sure yourself of where you’re going, and why.
  • Go where you’re needed. Early in my professional life I played a big role in a U.S. military program to repatriate soldiers and sailors to a civilian existence after combat. Many were ill-prepared for family life or the relative freedom back home, resulting in a range of unpleasant consequences in their communities, and we complained to a senior officer in charge that our interventions were too little, too late.  His instruction was clear: go where the problem is. The program’s main thrust was shifted from community centers after their arrival to aircraft carriers and troop transports before they stepped ashore. Big improvement. Good leaders don’t wait for problems to land at their doorsteps.
  • Communicate early, often and specifically. Recent research commissioned by Ketchum, the Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor, suggests that many leaders fall short of expectations simply for failing to communicate what’s happening and why. On a trek to Kilimanajaro last year, our Tanzanian guide took pain each morning to explain the route, the terrain and the likely conditions associated with altitude and weather. He told us exactly what we needed to know to reach the next stop along the way; never over-promising, never sugar-coating.  We all made it to the top.
  • Do the right thing. Years ago, a healthcare client was faced with a major product recall.  The case for withdrawing the product was sketchy and the cost would be enormous.  Lawyers and PR people were shouting at each other, agreeing only that we needed to buy time to examine the data against the product.  The CEO listened for a while, then asked us to politely shut up, and to make plans for taking the product off the market. “We’re in the business of making people healthy, not sick, so until we know more, we’ll not sell this product.” Powerful leadership, courageously exercised.
  • Check yourself. One of my first bosses asked for me for “upward” feedback, which I saw as an excellent chance to suck up. He said he’d sack me if I ever did that again. You only get better with feedback, and the higher up the ladder you climb, the more you’ll have to work to get it.
  • Be generous. My dear grand-mother, 96 years old and well in rural Oklahoma, adheres to a code that has served her well: you get more flies with honey than with vinegar.  Why we would want to get flies, I don’t know, but she’s right. Generosity with our time, patience and praise separates good managers from excellent leaders.

Not a day goes by that at least one of these lessons isn’t brought to mind. Sometimes I’m pleased to have remembered them in time to avoid a mistake; on other occasions I regret recalling them a bit too late. But I am sure they’ll stick with me forever.