Agencies Need to Take Talent Lessons From Hollywood and the NFL

3 questions to help mimic them

When you read those dismal employee and client surveys that typify our industry, do you ever wonder if we're using a flawed management model? After all, the one we use now was designed in the early 1900s, when unskilled rural workers were enlisted for dreary, repetitive factory work. Why do we manage to a mind-numbing assembly line when we're hoping for chain reactions of inspiration? 

Take a closer look around the world of business, and you'll realize that agencies are not like most businesses. We don't manage production; we facilitate talent and innovation. Replace the employees at Ford Motor Co., and the same products come out. But replace the talent at an agency, and the product changes as well, often dramatically. People are inextricably connected to the agency's product.

Jack Skeels

There are other talent-driven industries out there, and they use very different models. Teams are empowered to experiment, innovate and implement faster. The key difference between their models and ours is that they have mastered how and when to do less managing, which unleashes their teams to accomplish more. 

You can see this letting go of direct control in the way Hollywood studios operate. They understand that profitability comes from creative success, which at its core comes from the teams. You can't make a bad movie good by managing. They manage the prep and follow-through (financing and distribution) but unleash teams to handle everything in between.

When a studio does overmanage, the old cliché, "add a talking dog," applies. Teams get discouraged, and the work product goes to hell. So Hollywood leaves the talent alone, and they don't promote talent into management.

By contrast, agencies routinely move stars and firefighters out of the team and into the hierarchy of management. That weakens teams, diminishes the work, increases operational costs and fosters exclusion. Behavioral researchers have shown that these unneeded hierarchies also trigger in-group, out-group behaviors that decrease engagement, productivity and quality. That's the opposite of what agencies need today.

An even better example of unleashing talent can be found in professional sports. Sports organizations are optimized around continuous, competitive innovation—just like agencies should be. The NFL provides some simple metaphors for how to do talent-driven management. The managers (coaches) focus on preparing the players for each game, making sure they know everything they need to know and have all the right skills. Their job is more empowerment than oversight. With the opening kickoff, the players are pretty much in charge, and winning coaches know to start managing less and focus on supporting and feeding them insights.

Owners value talent over management. Coaches still matter, as does the top talent, but as the Dallas Cowboys showed us this year, great teams can survive and even excel despite the loss of superstar players. Empowered teams develop a talent for mutual adaptation, knowing each other's moves so well that great plays happen. They create inspired results that are more creative than the original design. 

How can agencies mimic them? Think the way they do. Here are a few questions to get started:

1. Can we recognize and reward without making another manager?
Successful football players don't get promoted to coach. They get rewarded through richer contracts and recognition that builds personal capital and a sense of worth.

2. Can we substitute a depth chart for our org chart?
It's not a coincidence that the NFL model is more layer cake than pyramid.  First-string or starter are words that denote how good you are. Director or manager define whom you control.

3. Can we make planning and mentoring team sports?
Hollywood and the NFL engage the whole enterprise in strategy, planning and assessment. And the most skilled players mentor the up-and-comers.

At the core of making our industry a better place to work is rethinking most of our assumptions about how to manage, right down to the question of who works for whom. Good teams become great when managers are empowering and supportive, rather than divisive and directing. Realizing this, the best leaders serve the team instead of commanding it.

Jack Skeels is CEO of AgencyAgile, a productivity training company for agencies.