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 he catches up with Andrew Benett, Global CEO, Havas Creative Group.
1. How did you end up making this career choice in the first place?
I’ve always been interested in people and the human experience, and I’ve been lucky enough to have a career centered on those interests. After studying psychology and art history at Georgetown, I had a stint as an entrepreneur, which I enjoyed, but I think strategic planning within larger companies was a better fit for me. It allowed me to work with all sorts of people on all kinds of projects in a broad swath of industries. To be at my best, I need a lot of variety in my work, and I had plenty of that at WPP, where I started out, and FutureBrand (IPG), and I’ve had even more at Havas as I’ve taken on broader roles.
2. Were there epiphany moments that changed the course of your career?
I think my epiphany moments haven’t been about changing the course of my career so much as about understanding what’s needed to do my job well. I had one such moment when I was running the brand-strategy practice at FutureBrand. I mentioned at a meeting how some of our teams were far more successful than others, even though every team had a relatively consistent level of talent and smarts. When we looked into it, we discovered that what really made the difference was how much the team members liked each other. I know it sounds like an “everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten” moment, but that understanding has really made a difference in how I hire and manage people.
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?
I do - certainly in my industry. The CEO has to wear a lot more hats these days, the most important of which is that of talent manager. Nothing will determine the success of our company more than the people we hire to run the business, engage the ranks, craft the most brilliant solutions, and build and constantly tweak a culture that promotes creativity, collaboration, agility, and trust. And it’s not nearly as simple as just identifying and figuring out how to lure - or retain - the best people. It’s about putting together the right mix within each office, each agency, each discipline, each region. That requires constant attention and the utmost care, and it is absolutely the responsibility of the CEO, not just human resources.
4. Were there ever times when you thought of throwing in the towel on your agency career?
I don’t think there’s another career out there that would sustain my interest as much as this one has. Hard to imagine growing bored when everything is always changing.
5. Have you ever been fired or come close to being fired? If so, how did that affect you?
Not as far as I know! I have had to let people go, though, and I can tell you it doesn’t get easier. I think the most important message, whether you’re firing someone or being fired, is that not every employer and employee are a smart match. The job market is more competitive today, but it’s also wide open. Why waste time in a situation that isn’t bringing out your best?
6. How do you go about building a leadership team?
If I have one rule that’s sacrosanct, it’s this: Never hire anyone I wouldn’t want to work under. In practice, that means that it doesn’t matter how much of a superstar someone is on paper; if I don’t personally want to spend time with that person, I’m not going to subject my colleagues and clients to him or her. Beyond that, I look for people who are agile minded, intensively future focused, and hungry to bring the company to the next level. And, of course, I need those people to bring with them a diversity of opinions, experiences, and passions so that we’re not all just sitting on a call or around a table, nodding our heads in agreement all the time. A certain amount of friction - within the context of a mutually respectful workplace - is necessary to prevent us from moving too slowly or settling into grooves that aren’t going to allow us to grow the way we should.
7. How do you manage the tension between making this year’s targets versus investing in capability to secure the future?
You always have to be playing the long game, especially in an industry that is changing so rapidly and fundamentally as ours. Yes, I have to pay attention to short-term targets, but I’m always keenly aware that upcoming sets of targets - in five years or ten years - won’t be achievable unless we have the right infrastructure, technological capabilities, and talent in place to bring them about. That’s what I need to keep my eye on.
8. To what extent is the CEO’s key role harnessing the energy of the people in the organisation?
Engagement is everything. So harnessing people’s energies, and also their creative and strategic brilliance, is certainly an essential part of my job. We invest a good deal of money each year in measuring engagement across the company, and I’ve made it a point to promote and remunerate managers based on their ability to engage and inspire those who work with them. It’s absolutely vital to creating a culture of creativity and curiosity. There’s no point in being in our industry if we don’t have that.
9. It can be lonely at the top. How do you keep yourself motivated now?
I haven’t found it the least bit lonely. I’m surrounded by energetic thinkers and makers, which is incredibly motivational in and of itself. And every year brings some new infusion of energy, whether it comes from being a part of the Henry Crown Fellows at the Aspen Institute - an insanely inspirational group - or building partnerships like the one I have with Troy Carter and The SMASHD Group. There are always new problems to be solved, new opportunities to take advantage of, so stasis is not one of the things I worry about.
10. What is the secret of your success?
I think this comes full circle with my first answer: having an enduring interest in people. I like to bring out the best in people, and I like to surround myself with people who push me to be ever better. I think a large part of my success comes from keeping my mouth shut long enough to learn from the very smart people I spend my days with.
To check out the rest of the ‘The Secret of My Success’ series click here.