What Agency Principals Want from Emerging Leaders

April 20, 2020 | Darrah L. Pilieri, APR

I represented my public relations firm at the 2020 IPREX Emerging Leaders Conference (ELC) in Boston, which was hosted by our partner agency, Mower. IPREX is a global network of communication agencies working across the spectrum of industry sectors and practice disciplines; AKCG is IPREX’s Philadelphia-area office. The ELC aims to bring together emerging leaders from across the globe to develop pertinent skills and grow the next generation of leaders.

Over the past two years, I’ve shifted into the emerging leader role. Transitioning from being a tactician to someone who can inspire and lead account teams and clients can prove to be an adjustment. Agency owners invest in sending delegates to the ELC to build new, advanced skills among their team inside of their agencies, rather than look outside of the agency to hire.

To understand the role of an emerging leader, it is necessary first to understand the difference between management and leadership. Management is a method of getting things done through people, and leadership is a process where an individual positively inspires and influences a group to achieve a common goal. Undoubtedly, good leaders work in both areas.

So, what does an agency principal look for in an emerging leader? Over the past three years attending the ELC, here are four common themes I have identified.

Embrace the opportunity to lead

A shift in an emerging leader’s role is easy to talk about, but hard to do. After having worked in the tactician capacity for a period of time, employees create processes, procedures and routines that streamline their daily tasks and efforts. When an employee’s role grows and they move into a leadership function, it may be difficult to know exactly where to begin. Not only does a leader need to manage account team members to ensure the work gets done, but they also now need to support the professional growth of individual team members, help build a culture of confidence and give constructive feedback.

Although this may sound intimidating, it is possible. Lean in and lead now. Agency principals want their emerging leaders to embrace the opportunity to lead, and trust that the emerging leader has permission to step up and fulfill the role.

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

An essential part of leading a team is getting used to taking risks and encouraging team members to do the same. Emerging leaders can ask their team members, “What is a good 10 percent stretch goal for you?” Asking team members to stretch themselves only 10 percent encourages the notion of pushing themselves out of their comfort zones without stressing them out. Each team member’s comfort zone is different, and a good leader will recognize which members exhibit the fight, flight or freeze tendencies. Keep an eye out for inevitable moments when anxieties arise. For those team members who have the flight or freeze tendencies, make it safe for junior colleagues verbalize their struggles. Creating a psychologically safe space and a culture of feedback will help build trust among the team.

“Management is a method of getting things done through people, and leadership is a process where an individual positively inspires and influences a group to achieve a common goal. Undoubtedly, good leaders work in both areas.” 

Additionally, emerging leaders now will find themselves delegating tasks to the team and managing project deliverables, which includes providing constructive feedback. No one wants to make mistakes. Praise team wins loudly and provide constructive feedback softly. Motivating and developing teams to get the best out of each team member includes sharing successes with senior managers and clients, as well as getting to the bottom of why something might have gone wrong or could have been done better. To help aid in the feedback loop, emerging leaders also should chime in on how they as the team leader could have acted differently.

Be curious

In this role, emerging leaders should be curious about not only the projects they work on, but also other account projects and agency business approach. Agency principals want their emerging leaders to work on the business, rather than in the business, to help drive the growth of the agency. Taking on this entrepreneurial and curious mindset will help build competency and new business skills.

Managing Up

Tacticians are used to a top-down management style, but when they enter the emerging leader realm, employees must be brave and begin to manage up. Because emerging leaders tend to be the bridge between junior staff and the executive team, they must have the courage to adjust their work and communication styles to better fit their manager’s work-style preferences.

Additionally, emerging leaders should be willing to tell their bosses the ugly truth or have the hard-to-discuss conversations when others won’t. In this position, emerging leaders should have their ear to the ground and be willing to report up, as exec team members may not be as close to the work as the account teams.

Now, this may seem like a lot – and it is. However, take the leap of faith and be OK with making calls that could potentially lead to challenge. Be empathetic to all team members. Be flexible and fair. And remember, leadership is not based on a fixed hierarchy pyramid – anyone can step up at any time.