Are You a Boss or a Leader?

What comes to mind when I say the word “boss”? I picture a person parked behind a big desk in a fancy office with enormous windows. He (yes, I picture a man) is chomping on a fat cigar, probably in a pricey suit and expensive shoes, and very likely barking orders to a few subordinates. Aside from those subordinates, and maybe a few peers, and definitely the VIPs in the C-suite above him, he does not know the people working in his department, and doesn’t care. He focuses on the numbers, with an eye to meeting whatever quota corporate has set for him. As an alternative to the cigar-chomper, picture the Pointy-haired Boss in the “Dilbert” comic strip.

Scale this down to a small ad agency, and you have an agency principal who gives orders rather than allowing autonomous decision-making. S/he is likely to micro-manage, or question and countermand employee recommendations. The principal leads from a distance, except when s/he is in your face, usually with criticism rather than praise. S/he may know employee names, but have few interactions with them, and maintain at best an authoritarian parental relationship. 

That lack of connection informs the culture, and leads to employees who may be happier working alone than as a team, and uncomfortable when called upon to work with clients and vendors. It also leads to people withholding ideas from fear of criticism, and being less willing to venture toward more innovative thinking, knowing the boss will overrule anything that s/he has not dictated.

That doesn’t sound like the best fit for an industry built on relationships. It definitely does not sound like the ideal for a creative ad agency or design firm, whose job it is to help clients form strong connections with their customers through smart, memorable and unique ideas. This is why it is important to understand the difference between being a boss, and being a leader. It may be the toughest lesson an agency principal must learn.

The Creative Revolution Has Evolved

In the thirty-plus years since Second Wind’s founding in 1988, we have had the pleasure of working with many agency principals in agencies of all sizes, from very small to 100+ employees. We’ve gotten to know many different types of leaders, and observed how those leadership styles informed culture and practices.

Where once creative people dominated agency leadership positions, now we are more likely to see account service or financial people leading their agencies. That alone makes for very different agency cultures. Factor in the speed of change in the industry, and the many challenges we face as a result, and today’s agencies—and leaders—are enormously different from thirty years ago.

What hasn’t changed is the goal of leadership… to empower the people working for you to make smart decisions aligned with your agency’s values and vision, serve the clients to the best of your abilities, and carry the agency forward to a strong future—with only the gentlest hand steering at the helm. This cannot happen if you are more a boss than a leader. Bosses make it difficult to replace them; leaders ensure the organization will carry on even after the leader is gone. 

MBWA Still Rules

Tom Peters, management guru and author, credits Hewlett-Packard president John Young for providing the mantra, MBWA (Management By Walking Around). Notable practitioners include Starbucks’ Howard Schulz (“I try to be a sponge and pick up all that I can”) and Walt Disney (who wandered his studio to participate in the creative process, and roamed Disneyland incognito to troubleshoot). 

Tom Peters, who with Bob Waterman first popularized MBWA, also cites Dov Frohman’s Rule of 50*: leaders should leave 50% of their time unscheduled. Some of that unscheduled time should be spent just thinking, but much of a leader’s time should be spent, in person, close to where the work is being done, and among the people doing it. Peters recommends doing MBWA first thing in the a.m., and last thing every day, and to focus on listening. 

True leadership comes down to moving beyond opining from the podium to mingling with the crowd—to learning how to network with your own employees.

Changing from Boss to Leader

Make time to stop and talk with employees. Get feedback on concerns. Check in on a family issue. Offer help with a challenging creative project. Call on a difficult client with your AE or a desirable prospect with your new biz developer. Be a part of the organization, but also a key influencer on your employees’ daily activities. Take the cultural lead.

Here are some other actions to take as you practice “being there.”

  • Ask questions to spur thinking or encourage more autonomous actions.
  • Accord recognition for a job well done, or commiserate on an account loss.
  • Keep people focused by reiterating core values, and using those to guide in making decisions.
  • Push people to think about the Why, not just the How.
  • Give regular, direct feedback—positive and negative, so conversations about both become “normal,” and less emotional.
  • Get people to “stop and think” where you see a need to slow people down in their desire to “move fast and break things”; consider consequences as well as disruption. 
  • Advise, mentor and support employees’ pursuit of professional ambitions and goals. 
  • Lead by ethical example.
  • Conduct ethics forums within the agency, discussing incidents and examples where hard choices were made to hew to agency values/principles.
  • Grow future agency leaders by watching for leadership traits and strong values alignment.

You need to work IN your business as well as ON your business. Become a leader and leave “bossing” to the comics.

* Dov Frohman, Leadership the Hard Way: Why Leadership Can’t Be Taught and How You Can Learn It Anyway