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Leadership training without the b*llacks by Dan Bennett, 2019 UK Scholar

I’ve just finished a year of the Marketing Academy where I’ve been lucky enough to hear from 50 of the industries finest minds, each sharing the things they wished they’d known earlier in their career. All the speakers, mentors and coaches on the academy gives their time for free, and the ethos is all about passing it on … so this is me doing my bit to share some of the top insights that struck a chord along the way. And hopefully to do it in quite a frank and succinct way.

Because if I’m totally honest I’d written off quite a lot of ‘that world’. When I heard leadership training I thought of stuffy old PowerPoints, filled with a pointless amount of acronyms, all delivered by people who had never really done the work of leadership themselves. They would use a bullshit layer of psychology to express any old tripe they had to share … and you’d walk out qualified but none the wiser of what to do. Pure ‘meh’.

When you’re at the stage in your career where you transition from delivery to leadership the reality is that you’ll cope with the 5% of managerial processes and protocol that’s now within your domain, but nobody will prepare you for the 95% of the invisible, heavy emotion-based demands that jump to life around you.

This is exactly what the Marketing Academy Scholarship prepares you for. The hard to articulate, impossible to figure out alone, messy world of leadership.

So with over 45 talks from some of the UK’s top industry leaders, 8 mentoring sessions and a year of coaching … I have distilled down what I felt were the generalisable lessons of the 2019-2020 scholarships:

Leadership lessons without the b*llacks …

1.    Know where you’re going

Busy people tend not to. There’s nothing more important than setting yourself and your team a crystallised vision of why they’re all there. I used to think any talk or ‘purpose’ or ‘vision’ was total industry b*llacks but it turns out that anyone who doesn’t know why they’re there really is running on half a tank. Visions make people hungry and hunger makes them succeed. Set yourself and your team a vision. As the academy put in … “Know what the f*cking point of it all is”.

2.    Always do it for the team

Those who reached the near ends of their careers all attested to one thing, doing what’s right by their people. If you put all your effort into raising up a great team around you, full of complimentary skill sets then the rest tends to take care of itself. Nothing goes before the genuine needs of your people, whether that be taking care of their mental health, something personal at home, or even their new child. You may increase your delivery by 2-3% … but what really was the point.

3.    Don’t be a victim

Leadership is a very testing role and it’s easy to slip into the habit of describing situations where you’re the victim. The trick is to be a player and not a victim. Victims sulk and seek affirmation of their shit situation from others, players rise up and do something about it. We all know those in victim mindsets … and it’s a very unattractive state, players on the other hand are magnetic.

4.    Glide like honey

Leadership can be an emotional rollercoaster. You’ll start your day with some difficult news about a colleague, walk straight into a room to review a teams work, maybe you hear how a financial forecast will affect your team in the coming months, then you dive straight into a new business meeting needing to be full of beans. And none of these people deserve or expect your emotions from the previous meeting. Being stressed is like being drunk, you deny that you are. The trick is to glide like honey, careful not to go too big on the highs, nor the lows. Absorb the situation and distribute what’s right to the world. And to be able to do that …. always prioritise your own needs first.

5.    Clarity always wins

Our industry scores very highly on emotional intelligence and measures where we feel rather than think our experiences. Banking doesn’t. Banking have no problem in speaking candidly to each other. Marketing does. Read everything you can on how to speak with radical candor. “Plan the arse out of it” as one mentor told me, “but do it”. And do everything you can to encourage those around you to speak their minds too. It’s simple. Don’t be unkind, check it’s a gift, check it’s the right time to give it, and then be specific. An honest disagreement is a sign of progress. If you struggle with the courage to feedback … really ask yourself why. Without this, you’ll be severely capping the impact that you make.

6.    Open beats closed

This one is a tightrope to walk. You don’t want to be that person who shares every little whim of their life with anyone who will listen, and those who don’t! You don’t want to be a mess. But you do want to recognise which situations bring your armour up. They’ll be points during the day when you’re triggered and it comes up to protect you. Big breath in, arms folded, mind closed … all to protect yourself. Figure out when and why that is … and work to be more open. Also try to fight stigma’s as your position means you can make a real difference; it’s very unlikely someone will use an admission of a ‘weakness’ against you and it could be a lifeline to somebody else.

7.    Liking comes out of respect

Sometimes it feels like there’s a choice between doing the nice thing and the right thing. It’s total rubbish … about five of our experts independently said this. Aim to be liked in the long-term not the short-term. Sure, feeding back the nice stuff and sugar coating (or omitting) the bad stuff will get you very popular this week, but after a year of no growth and wild overconfidence in your teams abilities … you’ll be left very unliked. It’s part of your role as a leader (in fact you are paid) to care personally and challenge directly … or as one mentor put it “leadership is the willingness to piss people off today”. Most mentors could point to several occasions each when they’d said the hard stuff which had positively transformed their peoples life’s.

8.    Forgive yourself for struggling

It seems obvious but struggling means you’re working a new muscle. Feeling nervous about an important pitch, why would you not be? Uncomfortable if talking senior stakeholders through months of work is going to go the way you like, of course you would be. Being a little kinder to yourself and softening your expectations of yourself can do a lot more than a glass of wine at the end of a long day.

9.    Don’t motivate people

It is not your job to motivate people, it is your job to get them to motivate themselves. If you’re the motivation then when you’re out the office it will stop. If the motivation comes from within then it’ll be ever-running. The hard thing is that motivating people feels great, but leadership isn’t about you, it’s for them.

10. Make yourself redundant quick

Mary Poppins is a fantastic consultant. She only stays as long as she’s needed and always makes a lasting change. As a leader you’ll want to leave a legacy and you’ll want to build up others leaders around you as quick as you can. It’s your job to build that capacity in your team, and helping them develop a vision for themselves is one way to do that in a flash.

11. Be a great you (not a terrible somebody else)

Copying others is a natural part of anyone’s development process and to seek inspiration in how others operate is to be applauded. But it’s important to dig deep into yourself and to figure out what is you offer uniquely. What’s your super power? How does your difference from your team mean that you can all be stronger? What are your values? Where are your boundaries? What do you really care about? What’s the point in all this for you? Leaders need to stand for something, and should have answers to these questions.

12. Obsessively seek out the truth on yourself

Leaders need to take a deep look within, because the baggage that you pack deep down will surface without a doubt. Hang-ups, insecurities, all of that rears its beautiful head when you’re leading, so it’s worth understanding yourself. Take a course, do some exercises online, notice when you’re acting irrationally, write it in the notes on your phone on you commute … have therapy … whatever it takes.

One final tip, which came up again and again.

Feedback about leaders doesn’t come to leaders.

Instead it goes to their other colleagues who are waiting for the lift with them. Some of the most useful (and difficult) stuff you will hear about yourself comes from finding ways to get people share that with you. Often it’s the thing that’s holding you back from leapfrogging to the next stage of your career.

You have to ask for feedback, you have to make it easy to give feedback … it must be an expectation that your people give it.

… And you must not bug the lift.

I hope you enjoyed that read. Just like the academy was itself … it’s an abundance of insights that you can take or leave as you see fit!

The Marketing Academy was an experience like no other and I’m sure not to receive such an abundant set of insights like that again in such a relatively short space of time. It’s a money can’t buy experience.

If you’re looking to apply for next year do let me know, I’d be more than happy to help.

Dan Bennett

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The Scholarship – a 9 month, free, part time program for 30 of the UK’s fastest rising stars in Marketing, Advertising, Media and Communications.

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