leadership incorporated blog

June 10, 2012

How wisdom from your prior job can kill your company

Meet Joan.

12 years ago, she landed a job as account executive in a regional office of a rapidly growing national ad agency. Joan intuitively understands how to build strong relationships with clients. She was a rising star and was promoted every 2-3 years first to account supervisor, then account director, followed by VP Account Management and just over three years ago she took over leadership of the office.

Joan’s biggest struggle had always been dealing with the creative department.  She never understood why creatives consistently don’t meet deadlines, why they regularly propose ideas that are outside of the budget, and why their concepts are so often off strategy.

Joan hit the ground running in her new role with a plan to improve agency performance on deadlines, budgets and strategy. Within 3 months, the long-time Creative Director left the agency to take a job with a competitor. At first, Joan was elated. Now she could really change things. But since then she has gone through 2 other CDs, and there might as well be a revolving door in the creative and production departments. Those clients she had great relationships with before are now dissatisfied with the creative product and she’s lost two significant accounts. Growth has effectively stalled. Joan realizes that her job is on the line. In hindsight, she is starting to see the value that the creative director brought to the table.

She estimates the hard costs to the agency of the turnover in this critical position at around $2.5 million and climbing. In terms of reputation of the office, impact on morale and missed opportunities the costs are inestimable and clearly significantly larger.

Can you identify the problem here?

Much as Joan originally wanted to lay the blame on difficult creatives, this is a leadership problem. As the head of the organization, maintaining a strong sense of alignment with one department over others was a huge limitation to her ability to succeed. This over-alignment kept her perspective too narrow. It turns out that what’s best for the account team isn’t necessarily what’s best for the business. It cost her an invaluable employee, several clients and the foundational integrity of the organization.

Joan failed to comprehend that she needed to be a leader not for the account team but for the entire agency. 

She brought her pre-existing struggles and preconceived alliances and prejudices to the role, when what is required in a senior leadership position is always a shift to an expanded and more inclusive perspective.

By relying almost exclusively on counsel from her former account team buddies and making decisions that favored her prior department, position and sensibility, she failed to develop trust with the rest of her management team, with other departments and many individuals. And that compromised the trust with the clients.

Trust is essential to business growth and success.

Trust is no luxury. It is critical. Lack of trust in organizations cripples performance, ignites conflict, guarantees inefficient use of resources, forces duplication of effort, ensures communication breakdowns, and pushes the best people and clients out the door. When lack of trust originates at the top of an organization it has a powerful ripple effect that will travel throughout the organization and can be very challenging to undo.

Take an honest look at yourself.

It’s only natural to identify and align with those who share our perspectives and experience. Yet, this is exactly the opposite of what we need to do to lead growth in our businesses.

Where might you be blinded by your prior experience and alignments?

How might you expand your counsel and open your mind?

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