Agencies May Have Leaders, but Staff Are Boss

Five Tenets to Ensure the Success of Your Employees

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Congratulations, you're the president. Now, meet your 150 bosses.

Most of the time, the title doesn't reflect who's really in charge. I was 22 years old when I got my first shot in the business. As a young account coordinator at a direct-marketing agency, like so many newbies, my "office" was literally a storage closet with the works: fluorescent lights, stacks of empty beer cases, abandoned computer parts. My role was administrative -- moving this folder from desk A to desk B -- with promising glimmers of client service.

This was fine with me. I knew the years of putting my nose to the grindstone and working hard would lead me to a job at the top. I wanted to run an agency because it was an exciting, entrepreneurial environment, and I admired my two bosses: smart, hard-working industry vets, whose leadership behaviors I was determined to emulate.

With each promotion, I was surprised and humbled to find that my "boss count" actually increased instead of decreased. Top dogs report to few people, it's true -- but they're responsible for so many more. After climbing the ranks to my own presidency, I have no less than 150 bosses, from our creative directors and our project managers to our receptionist.

To be a good boss, you have to be a working boss. I know that at my agency, I have to be engaged and dedicated if I expect people to follow me, let alone run through walls for the agency and our clients.

Here are a five basic tenets I've found help me stay in the game and stay committed to my many bosses:

1. Demonstrate leadership by doing. People respect people they can see working beside them. It's important to take the time to show your team you can still "do the stuff," and do it well. While you should stay closely involved in managing all clients' businesses, it doesn't hurt to jump in every so often and write the brief or craft the pitch strategy. This lets you set the pace of the team and stay sharp on the business.

2. Take yourself out of the equation. Any decision can take a long time when you have 150 bosses. I'm accountable for my employees and their success, and frankly, in most instances, it doesn't matter what I want. What is in their best interest? Effective leaders take themselves out of the equation and adopt abroad perspective. Knee-jerk reactions and quick decisions become things of the past.

3. Make your bosses' jobs easier. I believe pressure creates change, and taking on tough challenges shapes better business leaders. But if you're in touch with your people, you can easily recognize when they're maxing out, or when they're buried up to their necks. In some cases, the best way to help account leaders is by taking some work off their plate. Adding more resources or a temporary helper isn't always the answer.

4. Keep your bosses informed. As an agency leader, living a philosophy of transparency and honesty is so important. I tend to share more than most, which can admittedly bite me from time to time, but I believe people want to know where you're taking them and why, and they want to see signs of progress. Don't ever let your bosses be blindsided. Even when you have to deliver bad news.

5. Be there for your bosses. When someone quietly knocks at my door and asks, "Hey, gotta minute?" I know it's not going to be a short conversation. But I feel fortunate that they came to me for advice. If you want people to look after you, look after them. Ask questions, challenge their thinking and dispense Kleenex without judgment. Promise you will help them, and act.

Old-school thinking tells us that the best employees work to make their bosses successful, but in my experience, the reverse is closer to the truth. The best agency leaders work to ensure the success of their employees, just as I've been fortunate to have my bosses invest in me throughout my career. These behaviors aren't secrets, but they're certainly positive practices that , when done consistently, can help you become a more effective, more followed leader.

Bob Bailey is president at Rochester, N.Y.-based Partners & Napier.
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