What Does It Take to Be a Great Agency Leader?

Provide Perspective and Counsel Through the Toughest Times

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One of the best things about working in a small agency is that we're not cogs in a giant machine. A deep sense of connection and commitment develops among the team, because we are a relatively small group working collectively and intensely toward achieving common goals for our clients. We are all directly connected to, and responsible for, our successes and failures.

For leaders of small agencies, this sense of connection also can make hard choices that much harder. When our executive team has to make the decisions we all hate -- firing, staff reductions, etc. -- I grieve for the huge ripple effects that I know our decision has. I think about the children of the person impacted. I know about the vacation that is coming up that will have to be canceled. I know about the hopes and dreams that are affected by what we have to do to maintain the integrity of the whole.

These decisions are made so much more difficult because, as with an agency of any size, they often result from issues beyond our control. It's precisely in these situations that I have learned to take a step back for some perspective.

I didn't just come across the concept of perspective on my own, however.  In the fourth quarter of 2007, I was making the transition from the executive team to president. We had lost our biggest client at the end of a long and difficult pitch process. Everything we had been planning for 2008 had to change quickly.

I called my husband, who is a firefighter, to tell him the news and to get my bearings before I told the rest of the team. This was a huge emotional and financial blow to the agency, and I was frightened about the implications. My husband listened for a good 10 minutes before he said, with no irony, "I just got back from a really bad traffic accident and need to go change my clothes." He was covered in the victims' waste.

I was feeling badly about my situation, but his experience helped me realize that it could have been far worse. I think about that phone call whenever I'm dealing with tough times at the agency.

It would be easy just to tell everyone, "What we are doing isn't brain surgery, so we should all lighten up." But I don't believe that 's true. Just because we aren't saving lives doesn't mean our work isn't important, that we aren't passionate and dedicated to delivering the best work possible. Quite the opposite.

As agency leader, it is a fundamental part of my job to take the slings and arrows and set the tone whenever the inevitable disappointments and down days arise. Each of us has faced the downs of working in this business. It can be brutal. But it's important for leaders to help team members remember all the ups -- and to remind everyone that so many of the tough times occur from forces out of our control.

This doesn't mean that I don't have the tough conversations required when we've done something that causes the slings and arrows to come our way. It's never easy to say to a team you like and respect that we didn't win a piece of business because of the work they did (or didn't) do. Or that a client is unhappy with the work delivered by a team of people who feel they are working hard and with the client's best interest in mind.

It's easy to give tough feedback to those who aren't pulling their weight, but much harder when your team is smart and works hard. In either case, this feedback is better delivered from someone they know has a deep commitment to them, both professionally and personally, and who is vested -- and invested -- in their success. And, from someone willing to stand between them and the worst days of our business.

This may sound as if I think of myself as a big, fat martyr, but that 's not the way I mean it. There are certainly times when I feel like locking myself in a room and screaming. Then I remember my husband's story. Perspective. It helps me move past the hurt and be supportive to my team at the most critical moments.

The ability to inspire in the hardest times, to guide through the toughest passages, and to be a sounding board when people are struggling -- these are the ultimate tests of how successful I am as a leader.

Meredith Vaughan is president of Vladimir Jones, Colorado Springs, Colo.
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