Agency Doctor: Good leaders are made, not born

You're so good at your job that you get promoted to a role beyond your experience and skills. Don't panic, though - you can learn to lead well.

Leadership doesn't always come naturally, but it can be learned, says Richard Houghton
Leadership doesn't always come naturally, but it can be learned, says Richard Houghton

I can clearly remember the feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach when I sat down at my desk on my first day as an MD. My decision to take the job was more salary- and car-based, than a considered view of whether I had the experience or skills to lead the agency. I was definitely an enthusiastic amateur; the downside was that enthusiasm is no replacement for having the actual skills required for the job.

In the turnarounds and agency mergers I’ve handled, and with pretty much all the management teams for which I’ve consulted over recent years, getting the systems right has been the easy part. It isn’t hard to sort out a good time-recording system, management dashboard and client reporting model. What is difficult, and requires focused attention and effort, is getting the people bit right – the cultural piece.

This is because, as talent-centred businesses, all change in agencies is cultural. The systems are just that – processes to get things done. They require motivated, creative teams with a single direction of travel to use them successfully.

That’s where you, as the agency managing director, chief executive or board director, come in. With the speed and difficulty of agency life ever increasing, it’s critical that the top team has a real understanding of how to provide consistent, compelling and motivating leadership.

The challenge that the vast majority of agency leaders face is that they have been promoted because they were great at the practice of the PR and client-handling. While some of these skills are transferable to a leadership role, most sit firmly in the remit of a manager rather than a leader.

The good news is that good leaders are made, not born. A quick personal skills and experience inventory is a good place to start. Have you relied on what you have picked up over your career? While this is not all bad, it is unlikely that you will have a clear strategy to develop your leadership style and capability as your agency grows.

You probably haven’t identified different approaches and tactics to lead the different behavioural types among your team. You may not be in a position to identify your strengths and weaknesses, and to know when you need to share the load and look for support.

If you have had leadership training or coaching, was it designed for people like you? You are running a business where success is reliant on a motivated and stable team that brings together a diverse range of skills and approaches. This is not the same as running a small engineering or logistics company, and the leadership style required is different.

The five agency growth drivers I ask my clients to balance as leaders while we grow their agencies are: people, client delivery, marketing, new business and commercial management. It should be no surprise that people top that list.

Learn how to lead well. You, your team, clients and margins will all benefit. The days of the enthusiastic amateur should be over.

Richard Houghton is a business consultant:

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