Getting sense out of the Mad Men

Sykes Fairbairn defining leadership

Making Progress by facing the real issues

The Client was a London based PLC advertising agency. The brief was to see how we can improve their processes and systems. By the end of the first day, it was very apparent that whatever issues they had (and they had plenty), their systems and processes were the least of their worries. And the real issues? Leadership, communications, confidence, lack of clarity and a lot of fear: to take risks, of losing their jobs, of losing their clients. In short: a very unhappy place to be.

The fool’s gold of metrics and micro-management

As business got tighter, and winning new clients got tougher, the leadership assumed the correct response was to set multiple objectives, demand more information and analyse the life out of it. To plan, in meticulous detail, three, four, five (and more) steps in advance for virtually every scenario. And then to tell their managers exactly what they needed to do to execute these plans. It just made things worse. No one really knew what they were supposed to be doing (including the leaders), or what their business actually stood for.

Quick wins were not the answer

The truth was that they had about as many ‘quick wins’ as they were going to get. To constantly seek the quick win was simply distracting them from the real issues and what was needed to be done to put them right. They has failed to realise that it fundamentally was neither a people issue or a restructuring issue, but everything to do with setting clear unambiguous goals;  less about detail, but more about clarity; and not to demand tighter control but to give better direction.

What we learnt

It would be nice to say that they took all our recommendations, implemented them and then they all lived happily ever after. Sadly, that was not the case. Truth is, even if they had acted quickly on our suggestions, it was probably going to be too late. They had left it too long and drifted too far and were forced to sell the business. The lessons here were obvious: when things are getting tough and you are struggling to find answers, seeking help from an external, objective source is good advice. But don’t delay or ignore the warning signs – and put aside any hubris.