Will Your Firm Endure?

LinkedIn Article by Tim Williams 
Septemer 28, 2013

It’s quite unsettling to look around the advertising agency industry and see that it’s populated with 50-somethings at the top, 20-somethings on the front lines, and virtually nobody in-between. So many agency leaders lament their firm's lack of “bench strength” and are worried about not having a clear second in command.

Our chronic lack of attention to developing the careers of our key people has put agencies in a situation where “middle management” hardly exists. Precious little attention is paid to grooming the next generation of agency leadership and management. One recent study by the agency Arnold Worldwide and the American Association of Advertising Agencies found that a Starbucks barista gets more training than the average advertising agency account executive. We fail to invest in our people, then lament that our clients fail to see the value in what we do. A vicious cycle.

One of the frequent arguments against investing in professional development is “What happens if I train my people and they leave?” A better question is “What happens if you don’t train them and they stay?”

Nowhere is professional development more important than in firm full of knowledge workers – like an advertising agency – where what clients really buy is what we know, not just what we do. And the very top priority must be the the people we have identified as the future of the firm.

No one is irreplaceable

Leaders of agencies are also notorious for believing that no one in the firm could ever take their place. This is not only narcissistic, but ignores the fact that most of today’s enduring professional services firms were started by long-gone larger-than-life founders. James McKinsey and David Ogilvy had the foresight and good sense to identify and groom their successors.

Nurturing your lieutenants requires a serious commitment of time, energy, and patience. The skills required to lead a company are quite different from those needed to serve the needs of clients, and those skills must be deliberately taught and cultivated. Even your most talented people must learn the art of management.

In my consulting work with advertising agencies, I've seen a stubborn tendency for agency principals to expect that their successors must exhibit 360-degree perfection. Especially in the creative services business, brilliance in an area doesn't usually go hand-in-hand with "well-rounded." (Imagine Salvidor Dali as an art director.)

Even David Ogilvy acknowledged his inability to be good at everything. In a memo to his senior managers in 1971, he wrote:

Long ago I realized that I lack competence, or interest, or both, in several areas of our business. Notably television programming, finance, administration, commercial production and marketing. So I hired people who are strong in those areas where I am weak. Every one of you … is strong in some areas, weak in others. Take my advice: get people alongside you who make up for your weaknesses.”

What you’re looking for isn’t someone who works and thinks just like you do, but rather someone who can get the job done – even if they do the job in a very different way from how you’d do it. Remember that ultimately you’re looking for someone who can produce results, not someone who mimics your style.

Where there are peaks there are valleys

People with outstanding strengths (like the ones you should be grooming to run your firm) also have outstanding weaknesses. Peter Drucker tells the story of how during the American Civil War, advice-givers counseled U.S. President Abraham Lincoln that the highly effective General Ulysses S. Grant was a drunkard. “Perhaps,” said Lincoln. “But he knows how to win battles. If I knew his brand of whiskey, I’d send a barrel...to some other generals.”

Says Drucker, “In business, as in war, what's important is the outcome. Keep that topmost in your mind when assessing future – and current – workforces.”

Too many execs doubt the potential of their younger staff members. Remember, it’s likely that someone felt the same way about you at earlier in your career, but you have obviously proven him or her wrong. You learned the art of management, and so can the other bright people in your firm if you’ll invest in their personal and professional development.