Sally Henderson: The problem with leadership at Christmas

Sally Henderson is NDA’s monthly columnist discussing the pressures of leadership in our industry. Sally is an Executive Change Mentor with over twenty years experience.

December: the month when most of the population seems to be winding down for Christmas and yet for most senior leaders in the agency world, it spells the last manic opportunity to get figures, projects, sign off, plans, budgets, people, deliverables (and more) over the line in time for the new year.

There is no magic potion to take away the stress, burden, impact and toll that this intense pressure puts on the leaders of this wonderful industry of ours. And there’s equally no time for a proper recharge over the ‘break’ as it’s a busy time out of work too.

Unfortunately, this period of stress is not just limited to the end of the year. Stress is something I see affecting leaders, especially senior leaders, far too often. Here’s why:

No-one is actively looking after the emotional needs or well-being of the key leader(s) themselves. Sure, everyone wants something from the them all of the time but the reality is when that same leader looks for their own ‘fuel’ they are left, well…looking.

Emotion is the biggest asset or hindrance a leader(s) can have at work. When emotion is healthy, you are on fire, you can inspire others, draw deeply on resilience, access creative thinking and bravery and enjoy what you do.

When emotion is negative all of the above is downright difficult if not impossible. We forget at our peril it’s such a fine line between passion and stress and all too easy to tip from burning ambition to burnt out!

What’s your actual remit?

9/10 senior leaders and business owners in the creative sector are operating right now without clarity on their actual role and remit.

In a talk I gave this year to 70 agency leaders, only 6 had a job spec and only 1 of these had a job spec that was accurate and motivating – and less than 6 months old!

Yes, you read that correctly — 1 in 70!

When you aren’t clear on your role and remit, how can you set accurate goals, KPIs and very importantly boundaries? Often when I start my Change Mentoring Programmes with clients they are stressed because they have no idea really where their job starts and equally where it clearly stops. And this can be the CEO of a major business.

In the creative industry there is a blanket acceptance that to be a leader you can ‘get by’ without any specific training on leadership or even basic management skills in place.

With 58% of managers claiming not have received any management training- and the estimated cost annually of poor management and leadership to the UK economy costing  £19bn through lost productivity, surely it’s time to stop putting these essential skills into the ‘nice-to-have’ bucket. They are business imperative!

Just because you have a skill in a given expertise or area does not magically equip you to also organically develop amazing leadership skills at the same time.

Admittedly, looking after other people to grow your career and seniority is not everyone’s cup of tea. It does happen that to progress careers, ambitious people inherit leadership and people responsibility as a necessary evil over a passion or motivating professional purpose.

If you are drawing on areas that don’t naturally motivate you over areas that do and have no training or support in these areas is it really necessary to ask why people are stressed in leadership positions in the creative sector?

Review time

Reviews. Let’s be honest they are often the bane of senior leader’s lives. However, many leaders are experiencing unnecessary levels of stress and anxiety in the creative industry as, because they are senior, or often the owner too, it has literally been years since they had a review or accurate honest and helpful insight and feedback into their true performance, blind spots, goals and needs.

Reviews aren’t just about finding out where to improve, they also serve as a great vehicle for moments of recognition, value and achievement. If you aren’t being reviewed, it’s hard (if not impossible) to know how well you are actually doing, how best to focus your talent and ambition and how to address any areas that will benefit from help or support.

And yes, you’ve guessed it.  All of this uncertainly creates stress and fear and is a wonderful plentiful source of food for the imposter inside!

This leads me to my last point: leaders within the creative industry are shocking at really celebrating success – especially for themselves. As soon as one key win, client or goal is over the line, you’re already off the blocks looking how to deliver on the next. It’s fast-moving and it’s exhausting!

I help my clients get out of never-ending new business race to pause, reflect and acknowledge success, achievement, abilities and results. This ‘Ceremony of Celebration’ is an opportunity to really feel the moment and gives a much-needed serotonin boost and a wonderful sense of accomplishment.

In my work as an Executive Change Mentor I see a lot of senior leaders dealing with high levels of stress, especially now, as I’ve mentioned, during the festive season.

If this is you, make sure to give yourself permission to take a breather — and to congratulate yourself on a job well done. Because, let’s face it, we all need a pat on the back (and even a hug!) from time to time, no matter how senior or successful we are.

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