Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Susan Credle, the chief creative officer of the advertising agency Leo Burnett USA, who says that no one in an organization should be selfish about pursuing a great idea. “If you’re confident in who you are,” she says, “you will be generous.”
To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
* * *
“Don’t Compete With Colleagues. Embrace Them.”
Bryant: Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss?
Credle: It was with my brother.
Bryant: Tell me about that.
Credle: He’s three years younger than I am. My parents divorced when I was 5 or 6, and my brother and I had to travel back and forth alone on a plane between our two parents. So we kind of had to run our own little company within the family. And I think I was a bad boss.
Bryant: Why do you say that?
Credle: Because I used threats and I manipulated him to do things. And there were many times he really hated me. So I learned early on that leading people through manipulation is probably not the best way. The sibling lesson has lasted a long time.
But it is interesting how growing up in a divorced family really helped me learn how to deal with people. My dad is married for the third time, and there are children of all ages. We all love each other; we all get along. It hasn’t been easy, and we’ve all had to make sacrifices, check egos at the door and make it more about the thing we’re trying to create than what we do in creating it. It’s difficult, it’s complex, but that’s probably been one of the best things that ever happened to me when it comes to working with people.
Bryant: Talk more about how that plays into your role as a manager and leader.
Credle: Because I have a family of stepbrothers and stepsisters and a younger stepmom, I now really look at people in terms of more than just what they do at the company. They come with history. They come with outside lives. I think that trying to understand them as human beings versus workers has really helped, and understanding that different people fit in different ways. I don’t know who I would have been if I’d had the white-picket-fence upbringing. As difficult as my childhood was at times, I think that the texture it added to my life was worth it.
Bryant: And then, in the professional world, when were you somebody’s boss?
Credle: I was a writer, and I started getting a lot more work. Some of it, I realized, I didn’t have the talent to do as well as others, such as a certain kind of comedy where I’m not as strong as some people. But instead of being greedy and keeping the project to myself, I started going to people who were younger than I was, and I would say: “Look at this brief. I think you’re better at this. I promise I won’t take credit for your idea. I’ll protect it. I’ll get you in and you’ll start producing work if you want to.”
So the question was, do I compete with my colleagues or do I embrace them? I decided that embracing was much better. I get frustrated when people are caught up in titles. I think people who are really successful don’t ask about things like that. At least I never did. Finding the opportunities was more important to me.
Bryant: Tell me about the culture that you try to create and foster at your agency.
Credle: My first-day speech was: “Take out your business card and look at it. That business card will have more value if any one of you succeeds here, even if you’re not remotely a part of that success. You are not competing with each other in here. If you think you win when your idea wins out over your neighbor’s, that’s a pretty small gain. In fact, I would suggest that you help your neighbor’s ideas get better.
“I would suggest that if you look at something and you have a better idea, that you generously give that idea to someone and make them better. Because if we all do that, we all win. The minute you’re the only good thing at this company, we’re done. So can you do it? Can you be that generous?”
I also said that generosity has a lot to do with confidence. If you’re confident in who you are, you will be generous. If you’re scared, if you’re nervous, if you think you’re a fraud, you won’t be generous.
Bryant: What else can you tell me about the culture you try to create?
Credle: I work pretty long hours. Around 7 or 8 when I’m thinking about leaving, I walk the halls, sit down and visit with the people who are working late and say: “What are you doing? Are you O.K.?” I actually find a lot of opportunities. Because if someone’s working late, they either have an opportunity or a problem, which probably is also an opportunity. I learn things about, say, projects that we could take up to the next level with more people. We also do an internal awards show every year, and we set it up like Cannes. We invite every employee to come and vote on the work. This year, they had three days to vote, and we had over 1,000 employees vote. It’s a great experience, because half of our employees didn’t know about everything we do. But then, all of a sudden, once they realized it, they started walking with a little more swagger. I would say to them: “You’re a part of it all. Because whether you say something inspiring on the elevator or you’re just nice or you put some positive energy into this office, that’s all helping us make that work.”
Bryant: How did you get that idea?
Credle: We started it the first year I arrived, because I was supposed to put a reel together of the work and I wasn’t thrilled with it. I thought, “If I stand up there and go, ‘Here’s what you did this year,’ then I’m actually accepting it and saying this is fine.” So I decided if that we all voted on the work, then it’s everybody saying this is what we did this year, and this is what we think is the best. So it took it off of me, and became a companywide process of commenting on our work. We realized the benefit was phenomenal. The other thing is that we broadened who we recognized for the work. Traditionally, it’s usually the copywriter and the art director, and maybe the creative director, who are recognized. But we recognized everybody on the team, including who does the budgets, who does the financing, and they all get listed.
* * *
Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his new book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.