Chairman and CEO of McCann Worldgroup Harris Diamond looks back on his career - The Secret of My Success

Gary Stolkin, Harris Diamond

In a series of interviews in partnership with The Drum, Gary Stolkin, global chief executive of The Talent Business, who has handled multiple c-suite hires around the world for agency groups, talks to some of the most admired global chiefs about the secrets of their success. Here, in the latest installment of the series, he catches up with Harris Diamond, chairman and chief executive officer of McCann Worldgroup.

1. How did you end up making this career choice in the first place?

The truth is that not starting out in advertising helped me win my wife! She was a media planner when we met and she had sworn, when we were dating, that she would never marry an agency suit! After college, I started working in the business world as an assistant to an assistant. Then, over time, I decided to go to law school. I got involved in politics and then made a career in political consulting and later in crisis communications and corporate reputation. While my career has been to an extent unplanned, I grabbed the opportunities that presented themselves and that made the most sense at the time.

2. Were there epiphany moments that changed the course of your career?

In the fourth year of my first job I volunteered to work part time for a U.S. senator who was running a political campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The epiphany at the time was that I realised I was less suited to what I was doing and more interested in working in the public policy arena. That drove my decision, which became mutual, to leave my employer. I’d been spending years doing political consulting, and I met the vice chairman of Goldman Sachs. They were having some corporate reputational issues at that time and they became my first client. I built a career based on that. The biggest epiphany moment, with the benefit of hindsight, was the understanding that I was more focused on trying to build a semi-entrepreneurial career based in the world of corporate reputation consulting than anything else I’d been doing.

3. Do you think that what it takes to be a successful CEO in 2016 differs significantly from what it took when you started your career?

The lessons of leadership, which I learnt through watching political people and the transformation taking place in the American and global economy, still requires many of the same traits - you must have an idea of where you want to go, you’ve got to be able to convince people that it’s the right direction for them and the institution, and then you’ve got to be able to get there. While the knowledge that someone has to have today is different, those are still the same traits that I look for in my senior people. I don’t think the speed at which things are moving today makes much difference. The reality is that if you are responsible for a business, the ability to sometimes sit back and ponder should not be underestimated. Remember, it’s the ability to see ahead that you are looking for in your senior people.

With respect to the leadership skill set, you have to have an understanding of how people communicate, where the information comes from, what kind of information is most likely to be persuasive and how it will eventually drive people to buy a product or like a brand better. That primary skill set has not changed, even in the digital world. The real change is globalisation. The inherent nature of our business is now affected by so many other things such as the privacy rules in Europe, the different types of social media in Russia, China and Japan, or the consumption habits unique to Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. We look to our leaders now not just to be familiar with these issues, but to have a deep understanding of them. That is different from twenty years ago. The world was a relatively simpler place when it came to information. Back then there were certain elite publications and mass market publications in every country and you sort of knew who you were aiming at and how to reach them. Today, by definition, that is no longer true.

4. Were there ever times when you thought of throwing in the towel on your agency career? Have you ever been fired or come close to being fired? If so, how did that affect you?

While I would argue I left the company I first worked for after college on a voluntary basis, they may argue that they paid my unemployment insurance and escorted me off the premises! But seriously, when I look back on that period, one of the things I had to figure out was “does this job make sense?” and “is this career path right for me?” I was leaving a relatively good job for an uncertain future four years after college. It made me recognise that there are always a couple of paths you can take. For me the most important thing is to find out what drives you; for me that was a place where I enjoyed working, that was challenging, a meritocracy, and where ideas were paramount. “Getting fired” helped me recognise that at times you do have to separate yourself.

I think everyone must come to grips with what they want to do. Sometimes you need to have a serious talk with yourself about your career. I’ve always appreciated this because of that bump in the road I mentioned, the recognition that after four-and-a-half years I was in the wrong job. Some people would have looked at that job and thought it was perfect, but it was wrong for me. That experience has given me an appreciation of those moments when people come into my office and say it’s time to move on. I don’t try to dissuade a lot of people. I’ll dissuade people from going to a competitor, if I feel that’s the wrong move for them or for us, but when people tell me they want to move on to try something different – I get that. I did it, several times in my career.

I do think it’s important in business to figure out what it is that drives you forward, not just in your career, but in your day-to-day life. That is what’s so great about our industry. It’s always going through transformation. It’s always hard but it is always fun.

5. How do you go about building a leadership team?

First and foremost, you have to have people who share your vision both about where they are trying to lead the business and what they recognize as being essentially important in the business itself. I mentioned before the characteristics that helped me understand what I wanted to do, including in committing to a career that felt personally right, and I look for people who have that same broad perspective. I am lucky to have had partners all through my career who have helped guide me and who shared my values and perspectives. The people who work for you and with you are going to be leading other people as part of improving the overall culture and capabilities of the organization. So I always ask myself when you make a hire or promotion, can you attract the types of people that would make you more successful than you would be if you did it alone?

6. A lot of leaders globally who work in big holding companies complain about managing the tension between making this year’s targets versus investing in capability to secure the future. Do you feel there is a tension and how do you manage it?

I don’t believe that there is a significant distinction between being part of a public holding company or a private company. And I say this as someone who once owned my own company with a couple of partners. Making payroll was something we were pretty focused on, along with trying to make sure we also had something left over at the end of the year. No matter what the ownership structure, whether public or private, you’re always going to be focused on building the business.

Since selling, I’ve been part of three different holding companies, BJK&E, True North and now Interpublic. All of them have given me the resources to grow the businesses I’ve been involved in. All have allowed me and the staff to reach higher.

But is there a tension between today’s profits and tomorrow’s investments? Yes, absolutely. It’s a short-term vs. long-term tension that exists and will always exist. I actually think it’s a good tension. It makes you focus.

7. It can be lonely at the top. How do you keep yourself motivated now?

I don’t think it’s lonely at the top. If you feel that way, then that reflects how you run your business. In my view, it’s all about the team of people you surround yourself with. The continuous excitement is in leading and working with a group of people, all of whom are actively pulling in the same direction. That’s what drives you forward and keeps you focused. This is a great business; it’s interesting, it’s intriguing, it’s dynamically changing, people can generally make a good living from it, and it has status. Most importantly, you can see the impact of your work. You don’t have to wait fifty years to see if all of your engineering calculations are going to successfully get you to land on Mars. What makes our business great are the creatives, the strategists, the production and account people - all of whom are energized and love what they are doing.

The above content is editorially independent and is brought to you in partnership with The Drum and The Talent Business.

To check out the rest of the ‘The Secret of My Success’ series click here.

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