Use Cross-Training to Make Better Managers

Hire for One Skill Set, and Training for the Other

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Marc Brownstein Marc Brownstein
One thing about ad agencies large and small: they are loaded with talent. Much more so than client-side companies. How so? Consider all of the specialists within our ranks: copywriters, media-relations specialists, account planners, art directors, digital designers, interactive strategists, technical writers, digital coders, etc. You get the idea. Now eventually these highly skilled people move up the ranks of our agencies and are tasked with being good at another skill: managing others.

That is where the great divide in agencies is drawn. Especially in small to midsize agencies.

It has been my experience (both first-hand and at agencies run by those I know well throughout the country) that hiring for both specialist and managerial skill sets in one individual is rare. Given that, we often have to make choices: hire for the marketing skill set, or for the ability to manage. And accept the fact that we will have to apply training to fill the gap.

But I don't believe it is possible to train for talent. It's like being a professional athlete; you can either throw a 95-mph fast ball or you can't. So the really good agencies hire for marketing skills, and teach the management skills. The alternative is that you have a lot of great managers managing a low-wattage agency. Not exactly the way to win over clients.

To overcome this agency catch 22, here are some things you can do to cross-train your team:
  • Most important is to find the very best talent available. Marketing talent, that is.

  • Next, you have to be an able manager yourself and work closely with your team to make sure they are getting the mentoring and guidance they need. While you are doing this, determine which members of your team are cut out for management, and which are better off applying their marketing skills all of the time. Do this through conversations and during performance reviews throughout the year.

  • Training. There is a good amount of it available in our industry. The Four A's provides an excellent multi-day course in leadership each year. It's like going to Harvard just for agency managers in the making. There are also regular (meaning non-agency specific) management training courses available in every city. Some are offered by Dale Carnegie, which has broadened beyond sales training; others such as the American Management Association offer plenty of courses in most U.S. cities. I have also found excellent training in retired agency executives; they are a valuable resource, as they are available to mentor your fast-track talent over a period of time, not just during a multi-day course. This is a more expensive option, but can be worth the investment in the right individuals in your agency.

  • If you've trained someone in your shop, and they are a disaster in management, do that person, those who work under him/her, your agency and clients a favor and re-focus him/her on creating versus managing. And I urge you not to hold the inability to effectively manage against that person; it is far more admirable to be blessed with a marketing skill that few have. Sometimes you just have to acknowledge that it is better to play to someone's strengths (I recommend reading this book: Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton) than to put someone in a position to fail. No one wins that way.
Good luck in your cross-training.
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