To those of you who worked for me prior to 2007, I apologize.
To those of you who worked with me since then, thank you.
This is a tale of two leadership styles and two different people occupying the same body. It is also a story about understanding when something is broken and taking often very hard steps to change.
To understand the change, you first have to understand that I was never intended to manage people. I fell into leadership through two key happenings.
The first key happening was that I turned out to be pretty decent at this PR thing when I joined McGrath/Power Public Relations. Within three years of being hired to help open M/P’s West Coast, I was given a partnership in the firm while in my early-20s. I had to interact with and counsel all types of people, but at that time I was more of an individual contributor than a leader. Then, the game changed. My new role called for me to supervise teams of people and lead client service at the agency and I simply wasn’t prepared. I had gotten to this point in my career basically by trying really, really hard and succeeding often through brute force. That generally doesn’t tee up great leadership as I would soon find out.
I came into the agency without a ton of PR knowledge and ultimately figured, hey, if I could be successful at this stuff, anybody could as long as they tried as hard as I did. I was also operating with a set of instilled expectations that wasn’t the norm. Not everybody was maniacal enough to live up to my Dad’s expectations of success that even I struggled to achieve. But, those were my measuring sticks – on which to base results and hold people accountable. Immediately, expectation gaps popped up, my frustration grew and I became, how shall we say, not pleasant to work for.
I worked from the position that “everybody should be able to do it.” This fine approach enabled me to rapidly alienate just about everybody I managed except those who saw that I was striving for a level of excellence that was hard to achieve, shared similar ideals and gravitated to the loyalty I promised in return. At that point, I had a backstop in the office in the form of an older partner who could smooth things out when needed with other teammates. Clients loved me. Agency team members, not so much. She acted as a bridge.
Then, about 12 years later, the second key happening in my leadership evolution took place.
My counterbalancing business partner died. The other two partners in our East Coast office had retired some years earlier and now it was just me and my underdeveloped leadership style running the agency. For the next few years, the business improved significantly based on changes I made, but internally things got worse. I wasn’t leading. I was demanding. At the end of the day, I was coming from a place of wanting to do our best work and not let anybody down, but really was afraid of failing. Ironically, it was my fear of failing that was setting me up to fail internally as I worked the external process of grinding out success for our clients.
It was a silly and sometimes vicious circle that I regret to this day. McGrath/Power was the starting point for many people who took the foundation we provided and parlayed it into great careers in various places. While I know I positively impacted a good number of them, I am also self-aware enough to know that I also rubbed many others the wrong way by my singularly focused and often too direct approach to what I perceived as leadership. If I could change one aspect of my career, it would be that – to have realized what I needed to do to become a better leader sooner.
The major point of change for me took place as rapidly as my early ascension within the agency and it came in the form of my second generation business partner – a person whom I trusted implicitly and understood what I was trying to accomplish. Once I found that person, got buy-in on the vision and watched her deliver with the same high standards that used to work against me, everything changed. It was liberating for me from a variety of perspectives – to be able to let go of the details, the minutia and take a step back to look at leading the agency in a different fashion. From this new vantage point, I could let go of what simply wasn’t working and focus on helping people learn, evaluating diverse opinions as opportunities for increased success and allowing myself to relax a bit. That certainly felt better – not only for me but for the overall team – and it was also eye-opening.
Almost instantly, the sins of the past became guideposts for the future. It was literally like being in the dream sequence of “A Christmas Carol” and having interactions from the years played back for you. I watched them in my mind’s eye over and over again as a basis to reverse engineer a leadership style that added more colorization to my previously black or white world without compromising my core beliefs. I distilled this down to a set of leadership principles that guide me today:
- Do Your Best is my mantra (the core value given to me by my Dad)
- Be professional – nothing less works (the foundation for how I represent myself internally and externally)
- Everybody gets the same opportunity I received (the basis for our agency’s Culture of Opportunity)
- I am a meritocracy kind of guy (I worked my way up by working hard and people noticed; if you do a good job, you too will be noticed and rewarded)
- We all must be willing to learn and grow (the journey is never over for anybody at our agency, including myself)
- You’ll always know where you stand with me (I believe in transparency and, luckily, have learned how to temper it when needed)
- You have my respect from day one (this is a precious commodity to me and I will give it to you freely at the outset – please protect it)
- I don’t hold grudges – I say it, I move on (understand the issue, discuss the issue and learn from the issue – when it’s over, it’s over)
- Call me on my tone – it’s not always reflective of how I feel (one of the hardest changes I’ve had to make was acknowledging flaws in my delivery of information and working to correct it; people have permission to call me on my tone to clarify my meaning)
Past performance is always a great indicator of future success – or not. As I look at my career from the leadership perspective, it falls neatly into two halves – bad leader/good leader. Present within both is the never ending desire to do great work and help companies achieve business goals through powerful communications. The how behind the implementation of that desire was my catalyst for change.
Thanks to everybody who formed the mosaic of my career and helped me change how I lead. I fully understand that it wasn’t always pretty. I am forever indebted to those who saw the changes I have made and enabled me to create a new leadership legacy I can be proud of.