Spetner: On constructive criticism and 'simple smarts'

The former CCO and CMO of Korn/Ferry International muses on an encounter with an old colleague that touched on performance and feedback.

When I worked for Nissan, our advertising agency was Chiat/Day. This was at a time when that agency was regarded as one of the hottest creative shops in the world. It produced the famous Apple 1984 Super Bowl ad directed by Ridley Scott, as well as the Energizer Bunny campaign. In 1990 it was named Agency of the Decade. I was a young, up-and-coming communications executive, and was fully awestruck by the agency and its leaders.

Nissan was one of its biggest clients, and my boss at the time was in charge of sales and marketing for the U.S., so he was close to the agency. At lunch one day I began asking him about Chiat/Day, and specifically about its founder Jay Chiat, whom he knew well.

I wanted to know what Chiat was like and why he was so successful. I’m not sure what I was expecting to hear, but I imagined him to be larger than life, and almost superhuman in his abilities.

I can no longer remember the specifics of what my boss told me. However, what I can distinctly remember is how surprised I was at his reply. He was highly complementary, and talked about Chiat being a great thinker, having incredible instincts, and having exceptional people skills, which all makes sense.

But the part that surprised me was he didn’t reveal Chiat could turn water into wine, or that he was the greatest showman on earth.

I thought about this conversation recently, when I was asked to provide input for a colleague’s performance review. She was easy to rave about. Every project I’ve worked on with her has gone smoothly and successfully, due primarily to her leadership. She’s smart, insightful, intuitive, and consistently able to anticipate a client’s needs.

When I tried to articulate the qualities that made her successful, the words were simple: She always says what she’s going to do and always does what she says. I realized I could count on her 100%, and could rest assured if an issue arose, she would seek input on how to solve it.

She had the gravitas to step up and lead when necessary, but also the self-confidence to let others jump in when appropriate. Her ego was very much in check.

In fact, the only constructive criticism I could muster for her performance review was that perhaps she should be more commanding with her presence. This means she could sometimes be underestimated, particularly at the start of an assignment.

It reminded me of a favorite compliment I received in my own career. It came from a boss who frequently gave me projects with sticky internal political issues. "I like giving you these kinds of projects," he said, "because you never make waves."

I felt this way about my colleague. She was firm in her direction and decision-making, but did it without causing disruption.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with some of the smartest and most recognized professionals in the communications industry, and very few of them are larger than life. Most are smart, gracious, driven, and direct. And, above all, they are unerringly reliable and responsive. They say what they’ll do and do what they say.

These aren’t the sexiest words to describe great talent, but they are the building blocks upon which success and accomplishment are built.

I have a feeling that was what my boss was telling me about Chiat way back when. I just didn’t understand it yet.

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in