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Marketing Leadership

Why running a business isn't the same as leading one

By David Mayo, (Former) Ogilvy Malaysia chief executive

September 14, 2020 | 8 min read

Leaders are better when they focus and concentrate, says David Mayo, the chief operating officer at ADNA Global and a member of the Marketing Society Asia.


Start with the first requirement of anything that involves leading human beings – Empathy.

Running a business is different from leading a business. In fact, it’s almost not even a component of leading a business today. There are several reasons for this.

A year ago in August 2019, a business roundtable in Washington, presided over by Barak Obama, agreed that companies should commit to balancing the needs of shareholders with customers, employees, suppliers and local communities and that profits were not the goals of the modern corporation. How refreshing.

Secondly, in a world where influence and opinion changes direction, like a shoal of fish being chased by a shark, the leader of a business has a role to manage the perception of the company whilst maintaining the focus on the strategic horizon (basically being who they say they are).

People running the company are the pawns to the strategists which is why I always feel a sense of pique when I read that the chief financial officer has stepped up to replace the chief executive officer in a company.

That’s not to say that chief financial officers don’t make great chief executive officers but if the life of the chief financial officers has been through the singular lens of the bottom line and leading a company is about trudging all-terrain to the horizon, I question the skills of the chief financial officers in being able to step up, do that and lead with a longer-term vision in mind.

And this isn’t to say that chief executive officers don’t have a clue about the numbers. Their job IS to deliver the growth and profitability but not at the expense of what the company stands for. And what the company could be.

Aside from the basics, the skills in running creative/strategic businesses and brand relationships across geographies and cultures are rooted in a range of intensely personal skills and the outcomes and effects of those skills.

Start with the first requirement of anything that involves leading human beings – empathy.

If you look back across time to the greatest military leaders of the past, they all possessed empathy to the extent that their followers would walk on hot coals for them.

They weren't soft touches either – Hannibal and his Carthaginians defeated the Romans in 216BC in Cannae in Southern Italy through a deft combination of strategic and tactical brilliance, motivation, vision and belief.

Then there was Henry V at Agincourt and perhaps more portentously, at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, where General Robert E Lee led one of the greatest military victories of the American Civil War.

All of these leaders possessed empathy. This gave them the ears, the heads and critically, the hearts of their men to surmount the odds against them and prevail.

And leaders today are challenged with doing just that, surmounting the odds against them.

In history, there was no substitute for being there.

It’s the same when you see a celebrity in the flesh rather than on a screen – you cannot quite believe it. You have this sense of ‘wow’…. you tell people who you saw.

And it’s the same with leaders. Not quite to the same ‘wow’ extent perhaps but it counts that you are there talking, sharing, spending time, nurturing, showing that it matters.

Mechanical, rote leadership from a book simply doesn’t cut it.

In 2020 there are layers and layers of excuses to not be there. Covid-19 notwithstanding, how many people have you worked with who just love a dial-in for the sake of saying they had a meeting? It happened, I was doing my job, we ticked the box, so we are making progress – yes? No!

The single thing that will give a business the leading edge in an incremental world, is creativity.

If we take some lessons from the cultures of South and South East Asia, where I have spent over half my life, it is easy to identify those critical skills. Especially when it comes to running a creative or strategic business.

Peculiar to creative businesses is in my opinion, the need for physical energy. The ability to use head, heart, body and brain in symbiotic formation is something that I believe successful leaders all have in common.

How often have you been there late in the evening speaking about a point of importance with someone who wants to be like you one day? Objectively, you should be at home in bed, recharging the batteries for another day tomorrow but you realize the importance of this discussion and what it means to the person you are speaking to. One day this person could run the company – they have as much to learn from you as you do from them.

Nothing that happens late in the evening speaking about a point of importance who wants to be like you one day, will ever happen on a Zoom call or a dial-in.

Listening not talking. Thinking not acting. Focussing and not trying to keep up with email and social media (if it was that important – believe me – they would call you!) are all skills we need to lean into.

And whilst I am on this, there is no such thing as multitasking by the way. Unless you are going through the grinding physicality of becoming a new mum that is.

People who tell me that their kids are simultaneously playing a computer game, watching Grey's Anatomy, snapchatting with their friends and chatting on a phone whitle doing their homework and then marvel at their ability to ’multitask’ are deluded. Their exam grades will be better if they concentrate on what they have to do. Period.

Leaders are better when they focus and concentrate. Period.

Back to what I have learned in Asia and I believe that over-confidence is something that many leaders start to suffer from as they build their success. Pride really does come before a fall and all of the military leaders I mentioned earlier, won as much for their brilliance and teamwork as they did because the opposition was larger and more conceited. Blinded by their success and their history.

David Ogilvy used to talk about divine discontent. In its original format, it was designed to warn against weight and conceit and self-importance and promote humbleness, mortality and reality.

To close, I would just add an option that I believe gives leaders an edge, care. It’s a cousin of Empathy but it is much harder to show you care.

In my last role at WPP after 21 years helping to build the business in Asia, I went to Malaysia as CEO. On my first day in my new and empty office, I opened my laptop ahead of a day’s business when I was handed two envelopes. Both handwritten and both newly arrived.

One was from Miles Young and one was from Shelly Lazarus both ex-global chief executive officers of Ogilvy. They had made time to hand write, stamp, and post a note to wish me luck on what we all knew was my last assignment.

It felt so intensely personal and because it mattered that much to them, it mattered to me.

David Mayo is the chief operating officer at ADNA Global and a member of the Marketing Society Asia.

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