Good business outcomes and good people management are inseparable. Who’s responsible for building relationships with the clients to generate business outcomes? Who’s responsible for networking and opening up new opportunities in the market? Who produces the work that directly contributes to the business outcomes?
People are the real assets, not just in advertising, but also through all service- and advisory-oriented businesses. You can’t automate the act of pitching to clients or send your AI program to a networking event. You need talented people doing that for your organisation. Getting the best out of your staff will require a shared approach to leadership. Forget what you know about hierarchical yes-sir no-sir leadership. Strap on your seat belts tightly, because we’re going head-first into the concept of shared leadership, why one needs it and what it looks like in real life.
Music and Your Organisation
What does music have to do with leadership? As a leader and an amateur musician, I’ve noticed several parallels in being part of an organisation and playing in a band. Different organisation types have different types of leadership. Just like in music. A hundred-piece orchestra, for example, is led by just one conductor.
The conductor is in complete control and everyone takes direction from the movements of their baton. That’s an organisation that requires central leadership – that’s why the entire orchestra can play with extreme precision, where you have 17 violins producing one harmonious sound. Great conductors are paid well because of their brilliant attention to detail – they can process the music of an entire orchestra and pick out even a single misplayed note.
Today’s organisations, however, are younger and more nimble – they require a different kind of tradition, one with shared leadership. Like in a jazz band. While they play within a structure, they innovate individually within that structure. At a given point in time, the sax player may have the role of the lead performer, before he or she passes the lead to the drummer or keyboardist and so on. In shared leadership, it’s not necessary to retain control all the time - everyone has their time to shine in this system, and their specialties collectively contribute to the overall product or performance.
The second lesson I’ve learnt from music is the importance of teamwork. Within a band, every member has a clear role. They need to know what and when to play while keeping time on the beat. If one person screws up, everyone else screws up. In particular, the drummer is responsible for keeping the beat – if he speeds up, the band speeds up and vice versa.
Consider also the bass guitarist. To the listening public, the role of the bass guitar is often the most understated one. It mainly operates in the background, and isn’t very prominent, unlike the vocalist or the lead guitarist. However, you can’t have a band without the bass player – the music would sound bare. Great bass guitarists and the music they play tend to melt into the background, but they are absolutely essential to the song – the bass and the drums have to be in absolute sync. While the fame and credit often go to the frontmen, the bass guitarist is arguably the most important band member.
If your team’s organisational structure looks like a band’s, you’ll have people who may not be front-facing or have the charisma to perform up front. However, just like fantastic bass players, they’re indispensable in your organisation. As a leader, it’s important to look not just for the stars that can go up front and wow the crowd, but also the bass people in your organisation that can hold everything together.
A CEO of an organisation is very much like a frontman of a band. He/She is the face of the company and enjoys everyone’s attention. But that shouldn’t go to their head. Great egos of frontmen have caused many great bands to break up over the years. You may be the biggest rockstar, but without your band (team), you’re nothing. It’s your team that makes you look good and you should never ever forget that. These are just some of the lessons that one can absorb from the music world and apply to shared leadership.
When You’re Not Good at Everything
Every CEO needs to provide a strategic vision to give the business a direction. Unfortunately, a lot of people are not necessarily very strategic. However, they can and do make up for that by being amazingly efficient when it comes to operations. For any business to thrive, they will need these two aspects – strategic direction and efficient business operations. It’s fine if you’re not an all-star at both, but you need to be damn good at one of them.
You need to understand your strengths; you can’t pretend to be a strategic thinker and not deliver on it. But you can leverage shared leadership to compensate for your weaknesses. Bring in someone who can help you create that strategy if that’s not your strength. And If your specialty is in strategy, bring on a great operations guy and partner with that person.
In large organisations, the CEO is responsible for driving the business’s vision and direction, but the COO is in charge of managing the nuts and bolts, ensuring everything operates smoothly. Have good people around you who can complement your skills. As a boss, finance always posed a challenge to me. Even though I’ve been running a company for a long time as a CEO, I’ve always made sure that my CFO’s a damn good player. Not only will I be able to depend on him to perform what I’m unable to do, there are also many insights I can obtain from him.
Together, we operate as a team – I’ve never seen myself as being above my other key business executives. Neither is shared leadership exclusive to senior management – in the advertising industry, even the lower and middle management groups and the creative teams share leadership roles on a campaign at different stages.
Anyone Can Step Up
Shared leadership rests on inclusivity. When you have an inclusive work environment, others are encouraged to step up and provide valuable input. Some people are naturally shy, but have unique and well-considered viewpoints that others may not have thought of – if these are left unsaid or if no one bothered to listen to what they had to say, it would be detrimental to business outcomes.
I was once a young senior account executive, with just three years into the industry, but I was very enthusiastic and passionate about the work and the brands we represented. Once there was a creative review happening – while the creative directors were presenting ideas, the rest of the room was actively debating and assessing the quality of the work produced. I stood quietly against a wall, opting to simply watch and observe as I was new to the company. During a lull in the conversation, Ravi Gupta, the MD of the company, suddenly turned to me.
“Calcutta Boy, what do you think?” (Ravi called me “Calcutta Boy” very affectionately). And I realised that he was actually interested in my opinion, in what I had to say. He genuinely wanted to know what my thoughts on the presentation were.
Initially, I was hesitant. But Ravi said, “I want your opinion. All the folks here are very close to the brief, but you’re new here. I want an objective point of view, tell me what you think.”
That gave me confidence to proceed, and I managed to speak from the heart. “I don’t think this idea works, and here’s why…”
While I continued to list the reasons why I felt the idea was unfeasible, the others in the room were all shocked. They had not expected the new boy to speak so openly.
But Ravi looked at me, then at everyone else. “The boy is right, we’re on the wrong track. Let’s go back to the drawing board”
For me, that experience was quite unnerving. I was concerned that this would impact my office relations with the creative team. However, Ravi said, “Never ever hold back your point of view. Never hide it or lose it.”
I didn’t understand that at the time, but this was an example of shared leadership. As a leader, you should be sensitive to the quiet ones in the room and encourage everyone to speak up, even the most junior of staff. It motivates them to actively participate in decision-making and take charge of business outcomes.
Deeds, Not Directives
From the very beginning, I’ve been very lucky to be able to grow and learn under some fantastic bosses. Piyush Pandey was one of them. The clients loved him and would feel reassured when Piyush was in the room with them. His down-to-earth sensibilities left a huge impression on me, and extended to his advertising campaigns – they were never overly poetic, but focused on simple statements that connect with the heart.
He helped make the office culture a very relaxed and informal one, creating tight-knit teams that fostered creativity and punched above their weight. For him, the idea of “keeping one’s distance” from junior staff was unheard of. We were free to speak our mind to him, even though he was our superior, and that helped produce quicker, better work.
In shared leadership, it’s okay to be friendly with staff. As a boss, if that’s how you demonstrate care and concern for them, there’s no need to force yourself to distance from them. When important issues have to be discussed, it doesn’t matter if it’s being raised by the most junior person – and I want them to feel comfortable enough to share their thoughts, hierarchy be damned.
At the same time, you can’t break down fun and friendship into a linear process for strengthening business relationships. To build rapport, you can’t fake caring. It’ll come naturally when you are authentic. You don’t need to compromise your personal life and privacy for it – close work relationships are sufficient. Regardless, whenever you feel comfortable with friendship, just go for it. It’s that simple. Creating an open and inclusive workplace isn’t through a top-down directive – it’s done through the shared efforts and actions of the organisation, including yourself – you have to lead by example.
Once your office culture is a more accessible one, shared leadership can function more effectively. When people are allowed to flourish and take charge, true motivation springs forth, and the business drivers will always be led by the right people, at the right time, at the right place.
Steps to Take in 24 Hours
- Encourage Participation
You can’t have a shared leadership culture if no one else is willing to lead. Create an accessible office culture and reach out to quieter employees – that will motivate more people to speak up and eventually take charge.
- Find the Right People for the Right Role
No one’s talented at everything. Find others that can compensate for your weaknesses, whether they’re strategic or operational. Have them take the lead whenever they’re more suitable.
- Be Friendly and Real
You can’t create an open and inclusive workplace with just words. If you work to make office culture more accessible through actions and authenticity, staff will respond in kind. The right environment for shared leadership will then develop naturally.