As planners, we should be better ancestors

Ogilvy & Mather London's head of planning outlines his five tips for planners who want to run a department.

I’m not sure how many planners think about leading a department when they’re in the early stages of their career. I know I didn’t. You focus on being the best planner you can possibly be. You focus on honing your skills as a creative problem solver. Having the ability to see things in people, culture and society that others don’t see. Winning the trust of creative teams and winning awards for your work are more likely to be at the top of your career "to do" list as opposed to "leading a department".

That said, there may come a point in your planning career when you get asked to lead a department. That’s exactly what happened to me when I found myself taking on the role as head of planning here at Ogilvy & Mather London. I have experience of managing people during my career but I had never led a department. So it was in at the deep end. But the experience has been invaluable ever since.

Our chief strategy officer Kevin Chesters, says: "Planners either get good. Or old. Or good and old, and then people ask you to run a department". The problem is by the time any planner is put into a leadership position, you’re learning from scratch. Nearly all of it will be pretty new to you.

"Leaders are born, not raised" is the biggest lie about leadership ever told. Being a good leader has to be learned. The problem is that leadership isn’t taught - especially not in planning. Unlike account management, where from an early point in your career you gain experience in managing resource, allocating time and worrying about the bottom-line, planners tend to progress through the ranks without ever having exposure to this side of the agency business.

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t in a good place to learn to be great leaders. Lucy Jameson, chief strategy officer turned highly successful chief executive at Grey London argued in Campaign, that planners are perfectly placed to take on leadership positions within agencies, because "Good planners are comfortable with one foot in change, sowing seeds for the future". Lucy makes an important point here that it is our job as planners to help brands navigate the future. The same is true of leading a successful team of people – it is about helping create the conditions for people to succeed and flourish.

In his book Legacy, James Kerr uncovers the 15 secrets behind the success of the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team (Did you know that the All Blacks have won 75% of all their matches over the last 100 years?). One of the secrets behind their success is their mantra, "be a good ancestor and plant trees you’ll never see". This means making sacrifices for your team, securing the success of their future above your own goals, above anything else.

The story of the All Blacks tells us that the best leaders put people and team culture first and I would argue that Planners are in the perfect position to do this. I would go one step further and say we are in a better position than any other discipline in our industry. 

Why? Because we have an innate understanding of culture and what motivates people more than anyone else. At O&M London we call this being "socially relevant". To succeed as a leader of a department, we have to apply this skill to our own team. This can be harder than it sounds, especially if nobody has ever taught you how to do it.

I’m not claiming to know all the answers. Far from it. I’m learning every day, but here are five things I’ve found useful on my journey so far so I thought I’d share.

1. Listen (really listen) to your team

As GK Chesterton said, "There’s a big difference between hearing and listening". Listening, I mean properly listening comes naturally to planners. We should apply this ability to our own teams. Listen and find out what really makes them tick. Without this, you won’t know what kind of culture will help people thrive.

2. Don’t be scared of feedback

We will spend hours in focus groups and pre-testing to understand how people are responding. We should ask for feedback on ourselves and each other. Regularly. At O&M London we’ve done away with the 12 month review. We focus on giving each other feedback on regular intervals. Feedback should match our pace of work. Without this, we can’t improve.

3. Be clear on expectations

We are used to setting KPIs and expectations on client business but less so on setting expectations of team members. Make it clear to teams what you expect from them. In return, you have to be clear what they can expect from you. This should be treated as a bond or agreement with one and other.

4. No d*ckheads

Another All Blacks mantra. Talent alone isn’t enough to become an All Black. To be an All Black you have to show a generous character and humility to be on the team. It shouldn’t be any different in a department, no one individual is bigger than the team - the team always comes first.

5. Find a mentor

Finally, I would recommend any planner to find a mentor. Beg, borrow, hassle (within reason) for one. Really. You will learn so much more than you’ll find in any management book.

There’s no silver bullet to getting it right. But it’s been an amazing experience. I’m still doing what I enjoy, which is creative problem solving and doing brilliant work with brilliant people. But with the added role of leading and learning from an amazing team of planners. The only thing holding any planner back from being a leader of a team is your own preconceptions and your willingness to learn. You do this, you can do anything.

Gen Kobayashi is head of planning at Ogilvy & Mather London


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