JWT's Tamara Ingram on leadership in a time of crisis

How to focus a team on the future without denying its past.

Campaign US' Annual Morale Survey has once again revealed that leadership is the No. 1 most-cited cause of low employee morale. All this week, as part of our first-ever Leadership Report, we're exploring the issue through the eyes of those who live it every day.

It was one of the swiftest and most stunning transfers of power in agency history. Seven days after J. Walter Thompson chief executive Gustavo Martinez was accused of racist and sexist behavior in a sexual discrimination lawsuit filed by chief communications officer Erin Johnson, WPP replaced him with chief client team officer Tamara Ingram. For Ingram, it was a matter of hours between getting the offer, saying goodbye to colleagues and appearing at the agency's headquarters to introduce herself to her new team. Here, Ingram shares her philosophy on balancing her vision for the future with acknowledgment of the past.

You had very little time to prepare for your arrival as J. Walter Thompson CEO. What did you need to accomplish in that first address to the agency?
Anytime there is a change of leadership, it's about change, and change is fragile. I wanted to have a sense of being excited and privileged to be there, because this is such a wonderful brand, and totally confident that change is a good thing, and that we're going to go for broke. I wanted to give people a sense of my enthusiasm and excitement about the job and a sense of what you have to do and a passion for that change.

What did you learn about the people coming into a situation like that? What surprised you about the environment or about the needs of the team?
What I always think is magical about this wonderful industry of advertising is that the people are incredibly optimistic. And people are optimistic because, in essence, we are all selling ourselves, getting other people to love our product and services. So there's a sense of optimism. I found that people were incredibly warm and supportive. I found our clients were kind and just wanted to make sure the vacuum was filled. I think that's what leadership is about. Leadership is about giving a sense of purpose and a sense of direction. And a sense of listening and being open.

In the end, culture and strength in culture is one of the big things that leaders need to establish. And you have to live it in a way. You have to be the culture that you want. How you behave as a leader is important.

Read: Wendy Clark on inspiring your pitch team

I'm sure you were a little frightened, and of course you have your own emotions about this. How much do you decide to show that? As a leader, where do you fall between being transparent about your emotions and being the rock?
I say this to people, and I want you to understand this is with great humility. I am not a fearful person. If you ask me if I could do anything, I would say I could. But that's not what I came with. The point of a leader is to take the company you're with and the people you're with and to take them somewhere. It's not about you. It's about putting other people and the business before yourself.

Early on, you sent that email in which you praised Gustavo's energy and commitment. That struck some people as curious at the time. What was the thinking behind doing that?
I think all leadership is about acknowledgment to go forth. And I think that's true of many things in life. It's true about understanding a brand's DNA and taking it forward. You've got to understand where you come from to understand where you need to go. Whatever the circumstances, I think, always, you need acknowledgment with that.

Read: Marc Strachan on 5 things I've learned about leadership

This is a public-facing business. How do you know when the time is right to talk to the media? You've obviously started being a bit more open about this lately. Is it just a matter of time passing? Is it a sense of healing? How do you know when the time is right to get out there?
It's an odd thing about talking to the media. I felt my task was to come and give a sense of what I wanted, to make sure people are motivated. To make sure our clients felt that we were doing the right work for them. To really understand the business. I also want J. Walter Thompson to be a magnet for our clients, for our people, for the communities that we live in. And to do that you have to be outward. You can't just be inward. So I've had some calls to begin bringing that to the outside world.

It's also very important that we diversify our product and our capability. We could only do that by having diverse and divergent imported people. It's important to find ways to get to new talent, because it's hard to get to talent that haven't gone to the normal universities. I think it's important that on behalf of the industry and all our community that we go public about that.

Anyone give you any particularly good or bad advice during this period?
Neither way.

Really? Come on.
In genuine honesty I've had no advice either way. This was a long journey for me. As musicians would say, you don't stand up and all of a sudden you're rocking out the charts. I like to think I've been training for this all my life, and have gotten lots of advice along the way.

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