The Secret to Being a Powerful CEO? Give Your Power Away

In the Agency World, Successful CEOs Share their Power with People

By Published on .

A group of curious, career-minded students from Smith College sat in our conference room here in mid-town Manhattan recently, asking questions about the advertising business. One asked, "Lynn, do you think going to a women's college helped you become a powerful CEO?"

Powerful CEO. It was an adjective-noun pairing that struck me. It's as inevitable as "happy holidays" or "beautiful smile."

"I never think of myself as powerful," I said immediately.

Most likely I feel that way because the trappings of power were so different when I was starting out in business. I had grown up, in part, within the Ted Bates agency, which rocked advertising in 1986 when it sold to Saatchi & Saatchi and earned its CEO Bob Jacoby $111 million. As a young account supervisor, I had had occasion to visit Bates' 27th "executive" floor, which had white wall-to-wall carpeting and a large, gold-framed oil painting of the CEO as a focal point in the foyer.

Contrast that to the image of the modern advertising CEO represented by Carter Murray, who took the helm of FCB in 2013. At the end of his first staff meeting, he invited everyone to follow him on Instagram. An array of images ensued as Carter traveled to FCB's 120 offices around the world: There was Carter holding his new espresso maker in Milan, raising his glass to the team in Hamburg, giving a thumbs-up with the new GM in Shanghai, mugging with the New York baristas. Interspersed regularly were pix of his twins at home.

As the New York Times' David Brooks wrote in a recent column, "The collaborative leader lessens the power distance between himself and everybody else."

What I told the Smith students next was this: "I never think of myself as powerful because, in fact, I've given my power away." I gestured to the two ID Media strategists who had joined us for the session. "Our people here have the power. They're the ones working every day with our clients. It's my responsibility, however, to ensure they have a platform to succeed."

That's a huge responsibility. It involves defining a vision that's based on client needs and competitive differentiation and advocating for it, both internally and externally. That vision and the practices that activate it must ensure sustainable growth and profitability.

Achieving this, as Gallup likes to remind us, requires focus, determination and risk taking. But there's something else. It's what differentiates the modern leader, like Carter Murray, who takes people with him in so many ways, from traditionalists like Bob Jacoby, whose heroes were Generals Erwin Rommel and George S. Patton.

It's an open recognition of the CEO's limitations.

I can't be everywhere and know everything. There's not enough time to do it all. I need other people to work with me and others to come up with solutions. I need to trust them -- and that's a bit scary.

A classic 2004 article in the Harvard Business Review, "Seven Surprises for New CEOs," summed it up by saying that for CEOs, "success ultimately depends on their ability to enlist the voluntary commitment rather than the forced obedience of others." In other words, you can't order it. Humility, trust and approachability become the great sources of power.

Linda Sawyer, chairman of Deutsch, told me, "For me, feeling powerful is having a deep sense of security and self-worth and inspiring others to shine and succeed. When you empower people, give them ownership and make them accountable, it demonstrates your confidence and motivates them in turn to deliver in spades."

That's the alchemy of leadership: The more power you give away, the more you have.

Most Popular