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Do agencies have unrealistic expectations of their leaders?

Chris Harris, Partner at Grace Blue, looks at what is being asked of new leaders and asks whether or not expectations are realistic.

When any communications agency starts the search for a new leader, there is a whole spectrum of criteria that comes into the mix: cultural fit, leadership style, ambition, education, relevant experience and even psychometric profile.

But far too often, those searching are looking for a direct line to new business. There can be no assumption that a new chief executive can or will turn up with a thick pocketbook full of names and contact details for clients seeking a new agency. The market is now more sophisticated than that.

It’s too easy for an agency to console itself that the hiring of someone with a good new business track record will immediately transform its own business, ignoring all the other factors involved. New business rarely follows a particular person around these days – marketing and advertising are not the “old boys’ club” they used to be. If a business is not attracting new business, it is likely to be for a multitude of reasons and the new leadership needs to be more broad-based.

New leadership can transform a business and transform new business performance – but it does that by making the agency better at what it does.

Too often we also hear people insisting that the new leaders they want have recent experience in that particular market, because they will be ‘connected’. But we live in a world of transferable skills both geographically and between industries. There are countless examples of people coming from outside and having a dramatic impact. They have vision, the know-how to lead and the understanding of how to engage intermediaries and the industry.

Equally important is cultural adjustment. Agencies on the whole have deep-rooted DNA, and culture shock is very real even amongst the strongest. Some of the best agencies have trouble bringing in senior staff because, even though they know they’ve hired a strong swimmer, they are so used to their own environment that they are blind to how choppy the waters can be.

It is never about one person: time and support are critical to success.

Never is the challenge of new leadership and expectations more intense than in new markets. Agencies enter a new geography excited and expecting instant success. But no market is sitting with baited breath, waiting for your agency. No matter how strong a brand the agency is in its home market, the new overseas CEO will not be able to replicate that instantly in the new region. It will need to build a team of people combining local and parent company experience.

Look at Asia – early and historic network acquisitions aside, the recently successful Western networks and agencies have started from scratch and been patient, slowly building up their presence and brand in these new markets. Those that have brought in a CEO from HQ know it will take time for that person to learn the new market, while those who have hired locally know it will take time for that leader to get to grips with the culture and approach of the business.

Whether for a new office or an existing one, a successful leadership appointment means having realistic expectations from the start. Your new leader won’t instantly double your new business pipeline and it may take time to fully comprehend your distinctive company culture. Taking time doesn’t mean there will not be dramatic or transformational performance change, but it may make it more sustainable.

The Wall