Sink or Swim: optics matter for leaders, and how to make a bad client great

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

Q: I received feedback from my boss that I’m being perceived as overly negative by some of the people I lead. In so many words, she said I need to smile more and act happy. I know I have a serious demeanour a lot of the time, but I’m not about to try and change who I am. I was so taken aback I said nothing. How do I tell my boss she was inappropriate, and if anything she should be telling people who have complained that they should grow up?

A: Anything from the boss that sounds like you can’t be authentic in your role is a red flag. It sounds like whatever her intention, she was unskilled at giving you feedback. Maybe she’s off base altogether, but consider the possibility that optics may be an issue here.

Maybe you’re sending unintended messages when, for instance, you have a scowl on your face (if that’s part of what people think is “negative” about you). When the leader wears a frown, employees tend to worry it’s about them. “What if that expression is about ME?”

My (Nancy’s) default expression is resting bitch face. People like me know their perma-frown is usually not actually aligned with what we’re feeling. The problem is, humans rarely pause to wonder if a frown can coexist with positivity. We literally take people at face value and react accordingly.

I began to keep my arms uncrossed after learning that closed body language subconsciously signals “I’m closed to what you’re saying.” And I’ve become more mindful about the impact my facial expressions have and act accordingly. If I can avoid unconsciously signalling something is wrong/I don’t like something/I’m mad when I’m not, I would like to.

It’s hard to try and undo what’s been natural forever. (I still remember a stranger saying to me as we passed at a crosswalk, decades ago, “Smile!” I’m that person.) But bringing mindfulness of optics—what I communicate visually—is part of having the impact and influence I want. I will never have a perma-smile, not remotely close. And that would be the wrong goal. But I flash smiles with a lot more regularity in conversations, when giving a talk, even meeting up with a friend—to try to make sure my visuals more closely match my true feelings.

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Talking to Strangers includes fascinating learning on the subject of optics. He makes the case that humans are extremely poor at reading those whose expressions or actions don’t match their feelings or intentions. He cites examples like the Amanda Knox case: she spent years in jail for murder because her expressions and behaviour didn’t align with how the jury thought an innocent person should look and behave. He makes an excellent case for doing what we can to avoid being misunderstood.

Changing your demeanour at times isn’t about not being your authentic self, it’s about being mindful of what you’re communicating without words.

Q: I lead an account that my team members see as a dead end. The brand is great, there should be tons of opportunity to create great work, but the client is hopelessly conservative. Every bold idea is rejected. “Safe” is the goal for them. I’m going to lose good people who aren’t producing book-building work. I’m wondering if now is the time to go over the client’s head to the more progressive CMO with the truth. This feels high risk, but perhaps high reward if it would change things.

A: We have had many clients who we had written off as “bad” that grew into great clients. It is possible. What makes this possible, in many cases, is the agency creative team/leader deciding to do things differently.

Instead of throwing up hands and assuming a client will just “never get it,” maybe even trying to get them off the business (caution on that strategy), educate them instead. We can wait forever for someone else to do it—after all, that’s not our job—but then the outcome is predictable: things won’t change.

If you take the mystery out of your process, explaining what it takes for you to do your job, it can lead to a whole new level of confidence, comprehension and respect.

Here’s an example. A CD we know had a client who never took his recommendations on illustrators for a global campaign. The client did a 180 after he spent an afternoon with him showing his exacting process for choosing the right person for the job. He used a lengthy list of metrics while reviewing dozens of artists’ portfolios together.

In those few hours, respect dawned. The client reframed the guy from having no more ability than he did at seeing who was great, to someone with a complex role that demanded a set of skills and expertise he was lucky to have on his business.

Maybe just as meaningful, he got to know the CD better through the process of having a fascinating, inclusive experience with him. Clients buy recommendations and bold ideas from people they know and trust. We’ll never forget the time an SVP at a big company observed to his agency leaders at an annual event, “I’ll never understand why agencies expect me to buy an idea that costs a fortune from someone I don’t even know.”

Time and again, when people we work with make educating their clients their business, they tell us that selling their best ideas becomes far more frequent. And that their clients help make the work better when they learn more about their business in the process.

So much of success with clients comes down to human nature. Working with it, not against it.

**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).


David Brown