How I Went From Buddy to Boss and Reevaluated Leadership Techniques

Advice for anyone rising into a higher position from a peer-intensive one

I remember the day clearly. Lee Clow asked me into his office, and we sat down on his two big leather chairs facing each other.

“We’re going to make you the ecd of the office,” he said. “I’m tired of dealing with everybody’s crap.”

Lee was the spiritual leader and creative force of the agency. In 2002, he was named worldwide creative director for the entire TBWA collective. He needed someone to take care of the day-to-day. It was time to create an executive creative director position, and I became the guinea pig.

What happened to me, what will happen to you, what will happen to anyone who rises from a peer group to a leadership position is quite simple. Everything changes.

Let me offer some wisdom I learned that helped me go from buddy to boss.

Reevaluate how you view leadership

Back then, I saw leadership in two ways. The first was the tyrant model—think imperial warlord or Henry VIII. The second way was softer, a kind of nonleader/coach. Both were ineffective.

Leadership is about leading change. That’s why you were anointed in the first place.

There was no way I could be a buddy if I became a demanding jerk. So, I kept things more or less the same. I had this new title but acted like nothing changed. The truth is, though, we needed to change.

Initially, the only thing I did was set up a monthly creative directors meeting. Its purpose was for everyone to vent, then I would take on the biggest problems. There were no decrees from me, just listening.

Interestingly, the seeds of effective leadership were here—especially the listening. But there needed to be more.

Three months went by, and the agency wasn’t stronger. The work wasn’t better. What was worse, I hadn’t established any influence over the work or any new protocols.

The problem was that I was afraid to make my friends upset. I didn’t want them to think that I had changed. But leadership is about leading change. That’s why you were anointed in the first place.

Adopt the way of prior leaders

The smartest bit of leadership wisdom I know comes from an ancient proverb, which says, “If he works for you, you work for him.”

The point centers around servant leadership, a style of leadership that dispenses the authoritative and ineffective imperial approach and instead demands that leaders inspire and work for the people they lead. How can you inspire employees? What barriers can you remove? What can you do to help others succeed?

If people work for you only because of your title, you’ve got work to do.

It’s all pretty BAY-sic

“BAY-sic” is a partial acronym to help keep priorities straight.

B: Put the needs of the brand you are working on first.

A: Put the agency needs second.

Y: Put your agenda last.

Being brand first is about putting the work first. The agency needs are really about being good to your teammates. And when you put the work first and are a good teammate, you rise.

Rule of threes

What I discovered is that not everyone is going to love you. In fact, I noticed a rule of threes: a third of the department was open to me, another third was not happy and a final third was ambivalent.

It’s best to focus on people who appreciate you and try to inspire the neutral folks to be more passionate and engaged. You’re going to need to plan for the latter, which might involve them looking for a new job.

Make it bigger than you

Put goals out there. It’s not earth-shattering advice, but creating goals works, especially when you make them public to your team. Goals say it’s not about you, but is instead about the “we.”

A goal can be to get three pieces of work written about in the press or on the news or trying to win an award for each brand in the agency. Or even more ambitious, let’s try to be Agency of the Year in the next 24 months. Whatever the goal, state it and try to live by it.

The skills that get you to a leadership role aren’t always the skills you need to succeed in a leadership role. In the advertising business, more often than not, we promote based on area of expertise. But IQ skills are only part of the game. Leadership is about EQ: empathy and emotion.

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This story first appeared in the Aug. 19, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.