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Dominic Mills 

NY Resolution #1: discover your leadership gene

NY Resolution #1: discover your leadership gene

Agency owner-managers starting the year with ambitious plans could add another New Year's resolution to their list. Dominic Mills reports on a seminar for would-be leaders.

As agencies start 2016 with ambitious plans, now seems a good time for owner-managers to focus on their own development.

At the same time, would-be entrepreneurs sitting in large agencies may be plotting their own breakaways and start-ups.

With a benign economic climate that encourages entrepreneurship and the rise of specialist agencies, this will be the year of start-ups.

Most of those entrepreneurs will not be born with the leadership gene. Yet, if their businesses are to grow, owner-managers of agencies need to learn how to be leaders.

Think of the world's most iconic agencies. Nearly all started small, and owe their success to the vision and leadership skills of their founders. Those individuals developed leadership skills that created a culture of success. Most had to learn how to do it.

But how? Sue Shaw and Aliya Vigor-Robertson, founding partners of Journey HR, teamed up late last year with Otherboard founder Louisa Pau to run a seminar for agency owner-managers grappling with their personal transitions.

The leadership journey

Typical agency owner-managers usually start as 'artisans' - skilled in their particular craft, but consumed by the nuts and bolts of running a small business - says Pau, who co-founded the healthcare agency Woolley Pau in 1993.

As the agency developed, she spent increasing amounts of time on the routine tasks, including VAT, HR, new business and account management, becoming the agency's 'hero' figure - the person who was the agency's chief problem solver. Her focus was almost exclusively day to day. This meant, she says, she was "in the business, rather than on the business."

This pattern, says Shaw, is common, but far from ideal. It's better, early on, for owner-managers to step back and think more holistically about their leadership.

At the heart of this is the creation of a vision. "To be a leader," says Vigor-Roberston, "you need a vision. That's why people follow you."

The questions they should ask themselves include:

- What is my identity as a leader?

- What are my unique personal characteristics?

- What is/are my target audience/s?

- What values and behaviours do I want to be famous for?

- What impression do I make on staff and clients, and how do I want them to remember me?

The articulation of these helps leaders focus on the right things, let the off-brand ones go, and communicate them more clearly both to staff and clients. Ultimately, it leads to the creation of an individual's leadership brand, says Shaw.

DM1The circle of trust

Meet the Fockers may have been a comedy, but the 'Circle of Trust' concept explained by Robert de Niro as ex-CIA agent Jack Burns, is relevant for any would-be leaders, says Vigor-Robertson.


The principle - that we work better together - is more seriously outlined by academic Simon Sinek, but posits that great leaders create a circle of trust that creates a safe environment for people in which to work.

Leaders should push that circle of trust out across the organisation, says Vigor-Robertson, to the extent that, instead of people working for their leaders, their leaders work for them.

"People need to trust that they will be supported, not only by their leader, but by their organisation, if they fail."

Thus the development of an organisational culture starts with trust, she says. From that, the next steps - the challenge, commitment, accountability and results - follow.

Over the years, says Vigor-Robertson, there has been a move away from more traditional, top-down, leadership styles to a more collaborative approach. The latter is built on the demonstration of authenticity and trust by the leader.

It's one that is more naturally suited to agencies, and also more aligned culturally with the values of younger workforces. "We encourage leaders to experiment more with the collaborative model," she says.

Typical leadership issues faced by owner-managers striving for growth include:

- Creating a culture that accommodates process with flexibility and individual responsibility

- How to evaluate the leadership skills of the senior team

- Creating an environment that attracts senior staff and gets them involved

- Being a leader while ensuring a succession plan

- How to pass on bad news, such as the loss of a client, without worrying staff, or allowing a mood of fear to evolve

- How much information to share, such as financial performance, and striking a balance between transparency and burdening staff with information they don't want to hear

- How share the vision without indulging in propaganda

- Striking the right balance between a collaborative culture with decisiveness

- Managing millennials

DM3From artisan to strategist: Louisa Pau's journey

Louisa Pau's leadership journey was, she reckons, pretty typical. At the launch of her start-up, healthcare agency Woolley Pau, she classed herself as an 'artisan' (along with her co-founder Dean Woolley), spending most of her time 'doing the doing'.

In stage two, she became the agency 'hero', the person her colleagues turned to to solve their problems and make decisions. "It was difficult for us to grow because the focus was day-to-day," she says.

But it was the third stage that was the most problematic. Cranfield academic David Molian describes this as the 'meddler' moment.

"I had hired more senior people as the business had grown, but I had a tendency to interfere. I was too used to being the person who understood the business best," she says.

At this point, Pau knew she needed to change things, and recruited a mentor via the IPA. "He had run and sold his own agency, and he made me realise that I couldn't get out of this stage without help."

Her advice: "Get some help or do some learning. It was a relief to have a sounding board. Through the IPA, I mixed with peer groups. We shared problems and it was helpful to make friends with people going through similar issues."

Armed with this, Pau graduated to the 'strategist' stage. "I really felt like a leader when I got there. I was on the business, planning for growth and the next phase of the agency."

Nevertheless, she says, there were moments of loneliness.

While she never gave much thought to her style of leadership, she believes she remained true to herself. "I was always myself - self-confident, challenging but supportive. It's possible I became more collaborative once I got past the 'meddler' stage."

Those on the journey to leadership need to understand their strengths, she says, but it is important to do it with someone who can facilitate the process. "My own strengths as a leader are honesty, self-confidence, wisdom and perspective. I was persuasive and communicated clear purpose. I was the conscience of the agency. I was authentic, I was myself."

What with hindsight, what would she do differently? "I would have done more learning and worked on self-development earlier," she says. "I'm not sure I was good admitting I was 'wrong', and I may have had a fixed mind-set about certain things."

Reading suggestions:

- Growing your Business: A Handbook for Ambitious Owner Managers, by Gerard Burke, Liz Clarke, David Molian and Paul Barrow

- Leaders Eat Last, by Simon Sinek

- Go Put Your Strengths To Work, by Marcus Buckingham

- Mindset, by Carol Dweck

- Limitless Leadership, by Ajaz Ahmad

- Brilliant Leader, by Simon Cooper

- Define Your Personal Leadership, Harvard Business Review

Simon Sinek TED talks:

- How great leaders inspire action

- Why good leaders make you feel safe

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