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Leadership Is An Art

Posted on July 30, 2003 and read 7,322 times

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“The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”
– Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader had it right. Leadership is not about running anything – rather it’s about empowering and supporting a group of talented and diverse individuals to realize your vision by performing up to their own personal best.

When asked to write on leadership and the running of an agency I was apprehensive. How could I sum up, in roughly 750 words, the dynamics of what occurs, on a daily basis, inside a marketing firm.

The very term, “running an agency,” is an oxymoron. The role an agency owner performs changes daily. Often hourly. At the heart of the role however is the task of leading a group of talented individuals to explore new options, find better solutions and work as a team to the benefit of our clients. It is often as much about art as it is science. You certainly don’t “run” anything or anyone. You do however manage, cajole, excite, invite, debate, challenge and counsel.

I have a borrowed saying from a colleague in the industry: “The best agency/client relationships are built on mutual faith, trust, confidence and respect.” I believe that this same philosophy applies to interacting and collaborating with your team. Finding the best solutions to our clients marketing challenges is done through true collaboration. If you do not have faith, trust, confidence and respect in your team then they will soon learn not to collaborate but rather to protect their turf and build their own empires. They will not support your efforts if you do not share those key values. You will not have created an environment that fosters the need to explore and find new ways of solving age-old problems.

In our business, there is no one person who can finish the puzzles that are started by our clients. Rather, it is through the connection of random thoughts and invitation for deep and meaningful discussion and dialogue with a variety of people that we can then create. It is the role of the agency leader to ensure that the right environment, philosophy and processes are in place to allow that collaboration to occur on a daily basis.

Our industry loves to champion the individual as the hero. I think that is bunk. Any great creative person worth their salt will acknowledge that no man is an island – but rather a conduit. Granted, some people are made of material that acts as a better “idea” conductor than others. But they are certainly not brilliant alone. On the other side of the coin, the best strategists can plan brilliantly, only to find those plans grow dust in a corner without an equally brilliant creative interpretation of that thinking.

Our industry is complex – we solve difficult business issues through a mixture of experience, street smarts, creativity and intelligence. And, often those skill sets come from four different people! So, when I think about leadership, I think about it in terms of how an orchestra works. Conductors do not play the piece – rather they lead the orchestra, drawing on the harmony, balance and passion within each of the players. The saying – “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” – is never more true than at a communications firm.

“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.”
– Bill Gates

The key to leadership in our industry, like many others, is empowerment. I have many opportunities on a daily basis that allow me to empower others to do their best work. It is not my role to find the solutions – rather it is my role to ensure that the best minds in our firm are working on the solutions together. Entrepreneurs often get stuck in growing their business because they do not learn when to let other, more talented people take over. Over the past few years, I have increasingly moved towards a model that is the right mix between entrepreneurial culture and a professionally managed one. If you go too far either way, I believe you end up in a place that offers you fleeting glory but not long-standing success as a business.

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”
– Sir Winston Churchill

How true! Real success comes from overcoming failure regularly and working past the problems, issues and challenges to find the best possible solutions. As the head of Venture, I need to be enthused and energetic. I believe that I lead best when I exhibit passion, drive and vision to the rest of my team. You can’t demand respect, or support, from your team. You earn it. Daily. The title of President, Owner, CEO or whatever is truly meaningless. It is the earned title of Respected Visionary that is key to moving any marketing communications firm ahead.

So, back to the oxymoron, what is running an agency like? Well, the term itself is evolving. We now run communications firms not advertising agencies. We no longer act as agents, but as true business advisors. This means that the people who work for firms in this industry are also changing. Being the owner of this new breed of firm is hugely exciting and fun. It’s also daunting and challenging.

I now find myself surrounded by people whose specific professional skill sets are far superior to mine. That, as David Ogilvy said long ago and long before Martha, is a good thing. However, I’d like to add something to the thought of surrounding yourself with great people. And it is this: Having great people around you is only the beginning of success in the marketing business. It is by empowering those people to be the best they can be so that they can then deliver outstanding, measurable solutions to our clients that we are truly successful. By doing what we do best – individually and as a team – our clients win and we all win.


Arlene Dickinson
Venture Communications






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