Some people seem destined to be leaders.
From a young age, they’re the ones all the other kids gather around — the ones who seem to have all the answers.
But even if you weren’t telling your classmates what to do on the playground years ago, you’re still leadership material, because being a leader isn’t about your title or how many people are listening to you.
It’s about having a powerful sense of responsibility to your people (in this case, your colleagues) and a willingness to grow personally so you can guide them to greatness.
If you’re an owner, executive or manager at an agency, you probably already understand how crucial your position, and quality leadership in general, are to your agency’s long-term health. However, you’re not supposed to inherently know the secrets of being an effective leader.
In our experience supporting agencies, we’ve learned that leadership is a big topic — one that warrants a deep dive. In this article, we’ll cover:
Throughout history, people have tried to define leadership beyond the literal act. Their explanations often involve big concepts like vision, motivation and service. These lofty terms may be accurate, but they’re also somewhat ambiguous.
It’s not until you lace up your shoes as head of a team that you truly understand how layered the role of leader can be. Even then, it’s normal to feel confused and experience some amount of imposter syndrome.
Read next: 5 Steps to Cope with Imposter Syndrome
Business empowerment author and former McKinsey employee Tom Peters explains the difference between run-of-the-mill management and true leadership: “Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing.”
You may only be able to define what leadership means to you when the proverbial push comes to shove — when your team faces a test and it’s time to be your best self.
If you let your instincts drive you in those moments, you’ll uncover what you’re capable of and why those instincts deserve to be followed by others.
While we can’t define leadership for you in a cut-and-dry sense, there’s one thing to keep in mind: Leadership is not the same thing as authority. The former is earned, while the latter is taken.
There are some universal factors of leadership, but we won’t try to compare the experience of leading a country to standing at the helm of your agency.
It’s not just the scale and audience that make agency leadership unique; it’s the nature of a professional services business. In a creative enterprise, you aren’t selling traditional commodities. You’re selling intellectual labor.
What does that mean for your relationship with your colleagues?
Your people are the bread and butter of what you offer. They aren’t standing in a factory producing widget after identical widget. They have to be able to think to produce quality work — and to do so, they need consistent support.
A team that feels seen can smoothly ride the waves of market fluctuations and shifts in clientele.
Danny Schultz, Vice President of Training and Coaching at SNP Communications, reminds us that we have to step out of our own heads to help our team reach this feeling.
“It’s so easy to become self-oriented and to lose track of who else is involved,” he says. “It's important to take an empathetic approach: Who are the other stakeholders? What does success look like to them?"
Investing attention in each of your direct reports, and their direct reports, pays dividends in terms of collective productivity and work quality.
BONUS: The natural byproduct of both is a boost in profits.
In an agency, the way you lead also trickles down to client-facing interactions. If everyone on your team feels purposeful (a feeling you directly contribute to), they’ll be driven to produce the best results possible for clients and to treat them in a way that reflects your agency’s values.
“Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them.”
- John C. Maxwell
Now that we’ve considered what’s possible when you nail effective leadership, it’s time to address the hard part: the how.
It may sound like typical business speak to say that communication is important, but many experienced leaders will tell you it’s the source of all great connections and successes.
Be explicit about expectations and never assume your team will arrive at the same conclusions you have. Those who haven’t held leadership positions are likely to think differently — less globally — about the problem or task at hand.
Executing on this can be easier than you might think. Daily communication doesn’t have to be a chore if you make regular efforts to connect with your team, especially with those you haven’t met in person. Keep your calendar updated and visible, reply to messages in a reasonable amount of time and try to have weekly check-ins with each person.
When you need to get something specific across, don’t forget to speak to what the other person cares about, rather than focusing on ticking off a prepared list of bullet points.
In years of leadership trainings, Schultz has noticed one common mistake most of us make when attempting to communicate. “People think about themselves but don't consider their audience — who are they and what do they care about?"
While clarity and frequency are important, there’s one element that can boost your team’s impression of you as an effective leader above all others: transparency.
It’s common to think transparency simply means access to information, but that’s only the high-level version of the concept.
Your everyday interactions with co-workers present opportunities to demonstrate more nuanced transparency. Here are a couple of situational examples:
Scenario: An account manager comes to you with a question about the best way to break bad news to a client. You’re not personally familiar with this client, but you’ve heard about some difficulties other agency employees have faced interacting with them.
Response: Instead of giving generic advice, you admit that you don’t know details about the situation, but you do know that it’s delicate. Then, you connect the account manager to someone who’s handled this type of tough delivery with clients before.
Why it’s transparent and effective: You’re being honest about both your own level of familiarity with the client and the fact that it could be a tightrope situation. By connecting your colleague with someone more suited, you’re communicating that there isn’t always a black-and-white answer.
Scenario: You and your executive team have decided you’re going to revamp the agency’s website. You’ve gotten proposals from three web designers and need to make a decision soon.
Response: Rather than going the typical route and making this decision with members of your C-suite only, you decide to share the designers’ mockups with the entire company and let everyone cast a vote.
Why it’s transparent and effective: When you let the entire agency in on a process that would normally take place behind the scenes, you’re sending a clear message that you don’t mind them knowing about upcoming plans and value their participation. Even if the final decision still rests in the hands of a few, this approach helps people feel like they’re invested in the agency’s big picture.
“It is difficult, but not impossible, to conduct strictly honest business.”
- Mahatma Gandhi
Most people have distinct work and private personas. Drawing a clear line can lead them to believe that professional behavior can’t (or shouldn’t) encompass vulnerability. Good leaders create a safe space in which junior employees can open up and be human in the workplace, to an appropriate degree.
This can only be accomplished with the other side of the communication coin: listening.
Stephen Brown, CEO of Toronto-based agency FUSE Create, shared why listening has become even more imperative for leaders post-pandemic on an episode of the CMA Connect podcast.
“The team just wants to be heard, and out of listening, you usually uncover what the true issue is. … If you go right to ‘I’ve got to fix that problem,’ you’ve probably missed the actual undercurrent of reality,” he says.
Truly listening to those you lead can be even more significant than anything you say. And the value isn’t exclusively enjoyed by the person who’s being listened to.
You might be surprised by what you learn about yourself as a leader, and the solutions you generate, when you really hear your colleagues.
Of course, listening doesn’t mean much without follow-up.
Schultz describes the need for post-conversational action:
“As a leader, you want to take the pulse of your organization, and you do that through one-on-ones and taking what you hear back up the chain. If there’s no feedback loop, that’s not a relationship; it’s just transactional."
Experienced leaders know how to hold themselves accountable, and show how they’ve done so.
The Most Underrated Job of an Agency Leader: Employee Acknowledgment
Daily interactions are excellent opportunities to establish yourself as an effective leader, but there’s one move you can make that is pure gold to your employees: Recognize what they’re doing well.
A 2020 survey by Deloitte revealed that employee recognition programs contributed to a 14% uptick in engagement, productivity and performance. Furthermore, a 15% jump in engagement translated to a 2% increase in margins.
You might assume employee recognition has to be a big deal or even a public affair, and that it’s going to cost a ton of money. The truth is that seemingly small acknowledgments go a long way in boosting your relationships with your team members.
Here are a few simple ideas to implement immediately:
Everyone craves a pat on the back, and it’s a win for your agency overall.
All of the warm, fuzzy human components have to be apparent, but there are some tangible pieces to the effective leadership puzzle too.
You could be a solid communicator, an attentive listener and a pro at transparency and still struggle to gain respect and retain top talent if your agency is disorganized.
How can you tell? You might be frustrating your team unknowingly by:
Acknowledging when these factors are dampening your ability to lead requires humility. Going to the trouble of instituting new, seamless processes takes conscious effort and good ol’ trial-and-error.
Whether your leadership journey began on a jungle gym or in a conference room, there are always fresh opportunities to expand your skillset and strengthen the bonds that hold your agency together.
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