MANAGING THE UNMANAGEABLES. TIPS FROM AG, HEAD OF STRATEGY AT BBH LA.

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Leading a team of strategists is the ultimate torture test of your management skills. Imagine a gaggle of introverted, smart, and hyper-critical individuals whose default setting is to judge you unworthy of their time. I like to think that once you’ve managed strategists, you can manage anything, writes AG Head of Strategy at BBH LA.

Picture from 2000 EDS commercial

So how do you manage the Unmanageables? A few weeks back, a friend and fellow plant-forward BBH Head of Strategy (hi @BenShaw) asked me for some top tips on how to herd those cats. Here they are:

#1 Get your priorities straight: the people, the product, the profit, in that order. Actual humans are more important than creative ideas because they have feelings. Your team will learn to trust you when they see that you always put them first. And the work should always take precedence over the money, because the work is why we all got into this mess in the first place. Thank you, Jim Carroll, for sharing this piece of wisdom with me five years ago.

#2 Say what you’re going to do, then do what you said you would. Never allow yourself to make any exception to that rule. The only way to build emotional safety is through consistent communication and follow through. If you fail and jeopardize that implicit contract, it will be harder than you think to build trust back. This piece of advice came from my yoga teacher training in India, and I’m pretty sure it applies to any position of authority.

#3 You are now the role model, whether you like to think of yourself in that way or not. People may or may not listen to what you tell them to do, but they will absolutely pick up on the way you behave and unconsciously mimic you. You therefore have to embody the kind of strategist you want on your team, and demonstrate through your actions what you expect others to bring to work. Act with integrity, work hard but not too hard (sending emails at 3am on a Sunday implicitly communicates that you expect all your reports to be thinking about work at 3am on a Sunday), in short: be the change (or the continuity) you want to see.

#4 Admin is an unavoidable part of the job, but it could kill you. Figure out what you have to stay on top of, and what you can delegate. You need a great right hand man or woman (a super assistant) who can take on department management and some of the heavy lifting around chasing time sheets, corralling appraisers, resource and project allocation, holidays etc. Push back if senior leadership is dumping too much admin management on you. Don’t let them stop you being a strategist. To that end…

#5 Protect your thinking time and your strategy brain. To be respected by your department, you need to be able to regularly demonstrate that they can learn from you, even if admin is dulling your neuroplasticity (see above). I recommend following the advice prescribed by Cal Newport in Deep Work, and time boxing tasks and types of work. Make sure to have at least two hours daily of uninterrupted thinking time (deep work), out of the office if necessary, and equally time box the rest of your more shallow tasks (department admin, emails, social media, etc), making sure that you leave at a sensible time every day. Like 6pm. 6pm is a good time to leave the agency.

#6 Ni Dieu, ni mère (No Gods, no mothers). It’s crucial to establish an adult to adult relationship with everyone on your team, and this might end up being harder than you thought. Some people will go through difficult times while you’re their manager and might, consciously or not, try to relate to you as a child relates to a parent, which is unhelpful. You are not responsible for individual team members’ happiness. You are responsible for creating a work environment that enables everyone to be authentically themselves, and for providing each individual with the right support and opportunities. On the other end of the spectrum, you need to keep an eye on what Dacher Keltner calls the Power Paradox: the fact that while empathy helps individuals rise to the top, the mere fact of having power makes you less empathetic, more narcissistic and more selfish. So remember: you’re not their parent, and you’re not God. You’re just a strategist, trying to help other strategists be the best they can be.


Read BEN SHAW’s aforementioned article here

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