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From CMO to CEO: why leadership is about context, not control

Vodafone's former head of media turned Adgile boss Paul Evans charts his journey from CMO to CEO, imparting lessons for other marketers along the way.

Paul Evans muses on the leadership lessons marketers can bring to the top job

In the second installment of his CMO ot CEO column, Paul Evans muses on the leadership lessons marketers can bring to the top job, and what it means to steer the ship in a way that prioritises context over control.

One of the great things about writing this column will be the opportunity to reflect on things that are happening right in this moment, and this week the subjects of good and bad leadership, as well as control, caught my attention.

Last week, an inudstry friend asked posed a question: what type of leader do you want to be? It sparked my interest in the subject.

Whether chief executive or intern, it's a great question for anyone to ask themselves. No matter what role we play in a business, we all have opportunities to demonstrate leadership behaviours, regardless of whether we're managing a team of direct reports, or in any position where we can take responsibility for a function, problem or task that sits in front of us.

As a new chief executive, I am more conscious than ever of wanting to be a ’good’ leader. I wanted to come into Adgile and have people see the best in me and be aware that I would carry their best interests and that of the company at all times.

My background at leading brands and agencies has had me undertake both individual contributor roles, as well as having people management responsibilities. I enjoyed both, but would not profess to be a great leader of people to any extent.

My natural inclinations lean towards mastery and specialism (which I practiced through the delivery of media and integrated comms planning over a number of years). However, in previous roles, this expertise would often run in conflict with empowerment – whether towards my agency partners or my direct reports.

Essentially, my instincts for ownership and the best possible outcomes have meant that I’ve perhaps not given the people I worked with the respect and latitude to perform as they needed or deserved over the years.

With time though, I’ve worked hard to become more self aware.

Empowering through context

As I write this, I’ve been in the chief executive role for a couple of months now, and have been working consciously to set the tone and examples of the kind of leadership that I want the entire business to show and share.

’Context, not control’ is a mantra that I’m stealing and interpreting from Netflix – a business with which I have a rapidly growing admiration, for the way that it has designed its style of leadership and culture.

Leading through context is an incredibly powerful and empowering act on behalf of any leader, and if manifested in culture, can supercharge the talent of any business.

Context is enabling. It allows decision making to move throughout teams – underpinned by trust, candour and talent density – by providing clear guidance as to how to navigate choice, but not dictating the actual course of action. It is the difference between coaching and directing – it’s where I want to hit as a leadership and cultural ’sweet spot’.

This is not to say that control as a leadership style is wrong, it simply needs to be used in moderation and in the correct circumstances, compensating for some of the factors above, where not present, or where required to make progress. Subtle forms of control can be fine – for example the use of specific KPIs to set and track performance where more active management is needed.

As I reflected earlier in this post, my desire as a subject matter expert can be to do and deliver, so my leadership journey will be characterised by working hard to ensure I am empowering and enabling in the majority.

Toxic control

Two stories that caught my eye when I was researching leadership, were ones that reminded me about how important it is for any leader to be mindful of this balance between context and control, and how destructive overt control as a leadership behaviour and culture can become if left unchecked.

You will, I’m sure, have heard about the bullying allegations against Priti Patel, the British home secretary, surfacing through the results of an independent enquiry that – although indemnified her – highlighted many examples of questionable conduct in her leadership role, such as swearing and shouting at her teams.

You may also have read this piece by Campaign’s Brittaney Kiefer, where she led a pretty brutal and candid examination of the bullying traits within our own marketing and advertising industry. This lays things pretty bare, but it’s well worth the long read to appreciate the infectious nature of this kind of leadership and management style in this extreme form.

The leader I want to be

The reason that I highlight these examples is that I have had first-hand experience of – not one, but two – line managers that have led through overt control during my career.

Shouting, pubic disapproval and intimidation, role dilution – I could go on, but you get the picture. It’s not my place to expose anyone – I feel this should have been my responsibility at the time, no matter how difficult the situation – but these are experiences I can learn from, clearly now informing what kind of leader I don’t want to be. I look back at those times with a sense of fulfilment, in that I can now choose a more positive leadership style very different to those individuals – one built on context, not control.

Leadership and culture is never really set – it breathes and it lives through the behaviours and acts of everyone who is part of that organisation, and very often beyond.

I’m incredibly fortunate in that I’m working for a business that is already vibrant, positive and encouraging of its teams. As a custodian – which every chief executive ultimately is – my aim is to build on this foundation, harnessing the power of context through leadership in continuing to build a business where extraordinary people and talent match and fuel the technology and innovation we create.

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