Sink or Swim: The value of well-defined roles and working behind-the-scenes

—This is the second Sink or Swim advice column from Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin, answering real questions about leadership development. To learn more about the column, and Nancy and Janet, read the introduction here.—  

Q: Dear Swim, I’m the executive creative director at an agency that has never had this role, so I’ve had to invent it myself. How do you effectively shift into a creative leadership role that the agency has never had? 

A: A newly created role—or any role—needs to be well defined for the sake of the company, its clients, and the person in the role, yet it’s very common for leadership roles in agencies to be ill-defined. This means that people in these roles can make assumptions that aren’t in line with agency expectations. It’s confusing for the leaders and for the people reporting to them. Not good.

How can this even be? Perhaps because in creative leader roles, different companies understand the titles differently; an ECD at one agency may wield enormous power, while at another they are in the shadow of their chief creative officer. That fluidity has led to a general lack of formal definitions.

In your unusual situation, we recommend that you capture in writing how you see your role and responsibilities. Sit down with your boss and review it together. Come to a formal agreement as to what you’ll be held accountable for in the short and long term, and leave with a clear understanding of what success in your role looks like to your boss.

Keep this agreement for future reference to reconfirm the power and boundaries of the position. This can come in handy in your reviews, and other situations where clarity around what you do—or don’t do—is needed. Be clear with your team what they can expect of you and equally clear about your expectations of them. Finally, your clients need to understand your role clearly, especially relative to other leaders in the agency they may have work with. Book coffees/lunches to have that conversation in a comfortable, no-pressure setting.

Q: How do you keep credibility with your agency when you take on a leadership role where much of the work happens outside of the agency’s walls?

A: Much of what you need to do as a leader—recruiting, dealing with clients and thought leadership initiatives—doesn’t have visibility, or “ROI,” that proves its value to employees. The next thing you know, some people are unsure of what you do, exactly.

Before we became co-CCO’s we thought our bosses didn’t really do anything besides kill our great ideas (exaggerating here, a bit), but by becoming the boss we finally realized all they had been doing behind the curtain. Much of that work directly benefited us as a creative team.

Now that you’re not creating the work yourself, you should make it clear (more than our bosses did) what you’re doing and why it’s of value. Make a healthy practice of (selectively) sharing with your team some of what’s going on behind the scenes, and invite their thoughts. Too often, the creative department is “shielded” from the messy stuff, but engaging them in the business of the business is just one of the investments you’re making in them and their future.

When possible, hand them chances to raise their own value outside their “maker” roles. Get them to organize the occasional lunch and learn, encourage them to speak at schools to share their expertise, or write a piece for a trade publication on an area of passion.

Lead by example to earn their trust and respect. Open doors to new opportunities for them. It’s not good form to literally tell people all you do for them, like you deserve a medal for it, but it’s fair to let them see behind that curtain. And know that playing the long game eventually establishes your value and excellence as a leader. Because what comes along with your efforts is success—for the agency and your people.

Q: I love development and helped develop two incredibly strong CD’s. I’ve worked hard to create a succession plan, but I also worry that I’m creating my own obsolescence. How do you create a succession plan for your agency without becoming obsolete?

A: The alternative is to keep people’s growth limited, which sooner or later means retention problems and hurts the work. By supporting your CD’s growth, your actions and instincts are spot on.

Trust that in helping them to constantly learn and grow, it reflects very well on you. Will one of them “push” you out of your job some day? Maybe. Or more likely, the trust, growth, gratitude and respect you’ve fostered means they won’t want you to leave any time soon. Your boss will likely want to keep the kind of leader that grows talent (your most important job). You may well be ready to move on before anyone nudges you to the door.

**Are you an emerging (or even experienced) leader facing a challenge in your role? Nancy and Janet have advice based on working with thousands of people from around the globe. Email your question to

Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk are the co-founders of Swim, a “creative leadership lab” that supports the success of leaders at every level around the globe. They were co-chief creative officers of Ogilvy Toronto (1998-2012).