Management Is a Dirty Job, but Someone Has to Do It

What My Team Teaches Me About Leadership

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Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
Maybe it's the upcoming midterm elections and wondering who is going to lead the country. Maybe it's that I just finished reading "Band of Brothers" by Stephen Ambrose about a bunch of WWII soldiers in their 20s who showed the kind of leadership and courage that make your jaw drop. Maybe it's looking ahead and wondering what kind of leadership will take PJA Advertising to its next level. For whatever reason, I've been thinking about the kind of leadership it takes to run an agency.

You can find a lot of good advice in the books. Search Amazon for books on leadership, and you'll get 63,465 results. I really like "Leading Change" by John Kotter, a book that taught me that the most important job for a leader is to create change in an organization. That has been a guiding principle for me, but it doesn't tell you how to act and what you need to know when you face trial by fire.

No matter how much you read, eventually you learn about leadership as you thrash about in the reality of day-to-day life and encounter the unpredictable, the unexpected and the unpleasant. Me, I've blundered with the best of them. I've stood on the sidelines with my hands in my pockets when I should have taken strong action. I've jumped into the fray when I should have stayed out.

It takes experience and instinct to know what works. I've probably learned my best leadership lessons from my management team. They're a motley bunch, and at first glance it's not obvious what makes them coalesce. We've got warriors and worriers, people who take charge and people who hang back. Some stand out for their charisma and others disappear in the crowd. Here's the catch: Each of these people, at watershed moments in our history, has shown a unique gift for leading the company. Their styles couldn't be more different. Some shine in good times, some in tough times. Some get their hands dirty. Some work in ideas. I can't put my finger on any one single quality that defines their leadership. I just know that at the right moment each of their styles can be transformative.

Like an anthropologist, I've been observing this team and their day-to-day interactions, trying to identify the whole range of traits that make for good agency leadership. It's a powerful lesson to see the variety of forms that this can take.

The observer. One of our guys doesn't say a lot in meetings. You might even say he's phobic about any form of confrontation. He watches and studies the market, our competition. He knows our strengths and weaknesses. When he can't take it any longer, he comes forward and outlines how the agency needs to change to be successful. When every other agency we knew spun off their media department, this guy pointed out that digital campaigns would require integrating media more closely into our operations. That insight reshaped our business.

The believer. I've had days where the bad news came fast and furious and what I really wanted was to play hooky and go to the movies. Then, I sit with one member of the management team who stares me down with a cool smile and says, with some inner wisdom, "I'm not worried." The best part is that I believe her, and so does everyone else.

Moral fortitude. The world is a chaotic place. We've got one person who does not waver, regardless of which way the wind blows. He never loses the ability to hold a vision, maintain his convictions, and stay the course.

The fighter. Whether it's taking on impossible deadlines, going into a pitch as the underdog, or rallying after a defeat, I'm in awe of the guy who looks us all in the eye with a hint of defiance and says, "Lets go; we're going to do it." That may sound like "Rocky," but sometimes you need to go old school.

Common sense. This business rewards change and thrives on innovation. If you're not careful, the new and different can be mistaken for better. The person who sits next to me never loses sight of the fundamentals that make a business successful. Many times when I'm ready to jump on a dead-end trend, she carefully puts us back on track.

Nerves of steel. We've got someone who could defuse bombs. He seems immune to good news and bad news. He methodically negotiates and manages his piece of the business. No fanfare and inspirational speeches, just results. The people who work for him stay calm and focused. And he seems to get them out the door by 5 p.m. on most nights.

The truth teller. How can I put this politely: Agencies can be totally full of shit. Think about it; they're ad agencies. They can convince themselves of anything. And they're really good at drinking their own Kool-Aid. Luckily I've got more than one person that makes sure we see the world as it is, not how we want it to be. This honesty extends to how we communicate with people throughout the agency. People can do amazing things when they know the real score.

The instigator. Complacency can kill an agency. I'm grateful for the person with a slightly snide smile who will interrupt some half-baked plan to point out that we're not the first person to have that idea, or to remind us that we're going to need to make some changes if we want to compete against the big boys. Even though he can burst a few bubbles, he's always ready to take you to the white board and show you how we can do things a little better.

No one operates in a vacuum, and there's a lot of overlap. Every member of our management team works to cultivate and reinforce each other's strengths. Regardless of style, this group shares a handful of common personality traits. They exhibit a mental toughness, courage in adversity, and the power of their convictions. They're competitors. Above all else, they will always take the first step forward when the outcome may be uncertain.

Maybe the biggest lesson for me has been that leadership doesn't live with a single individual. At its best, it's a team sport. Different as the individual members may be, they're united by a love for the game.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson
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