What It’s Like Taking on a New Leadership Role in the Middle of a Pandemic

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Last month, Tracey Pattani left her role at Digitas to become CEO of BSSP, an independent agency across the San Francisco Bay in Sausilito, California.

In the five weeks since she officially took on the top job, Pattani has faced challenges she could have never foreseen when she initially agreed to the position. The swift spread of COVID-19 has forced her to shelve whatever plans she came in with and focus on leading BSSP through a global pandemic that’s resulted in layoffs, furloughs and other cost-saving measures across the advertising industry.

“I came in with big ideas and dreams, but very quickly the situation demanded a different priority,” she said.

At a time when leadership is arguably more important than ever, recently installed executives such as Pattani are being asked to make decisions and provide guidance for people that they’ve barely gotten the chance to know.

“I don’t have the benefit of the relationships and trust that comes from working with people over time. It just hasn’t been built yet,” Pattani said. “I find that I work harder to explain my rationale and really sell through my decisions.”

On top of that, little time spent in the office means they haven’t had the chance to get a feel for the company’s culture, relying instead on Zoom chats and phone calls to ascertain how employees are reacting to changes.

That’s not to say there aren’t advantages to being the new kid on the block. For instance, Pattani said she’s been able to avoid the biases, blind spots and emotions that can sometimes come with being in an organization for a long period of time, giving her a “pure sightline” into the business and what needs to be done to weather the current crisis.

Leading through a screen

John Maxham became chief creative officer of Laughlin Constable, an agency with offices in Chicago and Milwaukee, in March. He’s spent more time virtually leading his 40-person creative team than actually being in the office with them.

“It’s been weird,” he said. “I’m painfully aware of starting a new job and just being a face in a box on the screen, and having people try to get to know me that way.”

On video calls, where people are often distracted by children, pets, spouses and whatever else they might be looking at on their screen, Maxham said it can be difficult to gauge how employees feel about him and the ideas he’s bringing to the table. During a recent video call, Maxham said he felt like a “comedian bombing” when he barely got any laughs and reactions during a meeting. He’s found that minimizing the group view during video conferences helps him focus on delivering information and announcements instead of becoming distracted by how employees are responding.

“I’m painfully aware of just being a face in a box on the screen, and having people try to get to know me that way.”
—John Maxham, CCO of Laughlin Constable

“The standard for attention on a Zoom conference is very different than in person because people might be doing multiple things at the same time and you really just don’t know,” he said. “You’re in this competitive environment of distractions.”

It’s not exactly an ideal time to meet clients either, many of whom are dealing with their own internal changes and problems. Maxham said several of his introductions to clients have been virtual, and he’s gotten the sense that they’ve got “so much on their mind” besides meeting the latest agency hire.

“What I try to do is just introduce myself and be as helpful as possible, understanding that they’ve got so many other things going on,” he said. “Meeting the new guy might not be one of their top priorities.”

Linda Knight, who became chief creative officer of creative agency Observatory in January, said the leadership team has had to make some “tough decisions” because of the current crisis. Knight said she’s had more one-on-one calls and personal Zoom chats with employees than she likely would under normal circumstances at this stage, noting that it’s accelerated the pace at which she’s gotten to know her colleagues.

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