I take a step back, let you go: On having the courage to do what you’re good at

The news that the founders of Hope & Glory are taking a step back from day-to-day management in order to get closer to clients and to ‘the work’ will have struck a chord with many people in communications.  It is a reminder of a couple of long-standing debates within our industry.

The first is a very broad one about management in all professions.  All too often people reach executive positions purely on the basis of being great at their ‘real jobs’, with no thought given to whether they have the attributes or interest needed to become good managers.  How many partners in law firms, say, end up in charge of teams of people because they are the best tax lawyer in the room?  It doesn’t matter if they are utterly uninterested in the development of their colleagues and more at home with figures than people, because they are the best at their job they are inexorably elevated to the top of the pyramid.  What could go wrong?

This tendency to promote people without any regard for their ability to do the next job is compounded in the PR industry, other perhaps than in some of the better resourced network firms, by the fact that many agencies are relatively small, do not devote as much attention to training and HR as they should, and have a tendency in all things to hurl people into the deep end to see if they can swim.  It takes a brave and self-aware person to say no, they want to carry on in a different role, doing what they are actually good at.  So the Hope & Glory announcement really is welcome, if unexpected.

The second debate is about the other side of the same coin.  Most senior folk in comms are good at handling clients, or at providing creative solutions or at giving sound advice.  And so they are promoted and start to devote time to managing colleagues, developing business plans, explaining themselves to shareholders and the like.  They have less time to spend with clients, who naturally become annoyed and may start to look elsewhere.  And they may even become disillusioned themselves, because it turns out they enjoyed doing ‘the work’ and even if they also like managing they can’t do both.

So what should comms agencies and the individuals within them do about this?  It would be tempting to say they should model themselves on virtual agencies like Park Street Partners, where I have been able to get back to working much more closely with clients, which I am enjoying thoroughly.  More realistically they should take a look at what has happened at Hope & Glory and create senior creative roles for people who are creative, and senior client management roles for people who are great with clients – and put good managers in managerial positions.  New ways to be senior and respected (and rewarded) should be created that do not necessarily involve scaling the managerial ladder.  There is a better way for agencies to organise themselves and this week’s news shows us how.

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