How to survive at the top
Why is it that some leaders come and go from their roles in just a year while others last decades? In a feature that first appeared in Encore, Megan Reynolds looks at what it takes to stay on top.
Although they may be the envy of thousands below, for many who soar to the pinnacle of their professions, the time at the top is short-lived. From media agency bosses – agencies such as Mindshare, Ikon, Mediacom, Initiative and ZenithOptimedia have all appointed new CEOs within the last two years – to leaders of media organisations and publications like magazines and newspapers, the top jobs are coveted and highly sought after. But according to the people who have held, and currently hold, these sorts of positions, it’s not always easy staying on top.In a recent piece in Encore, STW’s chief operating officer Chris Savage warned against chasing the CEO title. “So, you think you want to be the CEO, hey? Tread cautiously. Why do you want to be CEO? It’s a tough gig. I know. I have been CEO of several businesses and a CEO consistently for the past 20 years.”
One leader who shows no fear of holding down a top job is long-time media boss Harold Mitchell. Mitchell was ahead of the curve when he launched his independent media buying agency, Mitchell and Partners, in 1976, and well established when competitors started to crowd the market in the years that followed. Similarly he was ahead with the launch of his digital business, emitch, in 2000. And although he’s now taken a step back from his $1bn empire, Mitchell remains in a position of influence and is rumoured to have another startup in the works. “I always had a very long term view. I was in it for a long time so many of the decisions made paid out over the years. A long term vision is necessary to have success at anything, full stop,” says Mitchell.
Mitchell also believes that building trust with staff, clients and the media, as well as earning their respect is critical, as is a good understanding of the business. And for those in leadership positions, Mitchell says imagination and courage are key.
“You must be able to say what it is you imagine can happen,” he says. “And you need courage because you’ll sometimes have to make decisions which might offend someone. You don’t want that to happen but that just might happen anyway.”
John Sintras, chairman of Starcom MediaVest Group Australia, warns that you need to be prepared that the hard work won’t stop when you do reach the top. “If anything, I feel like you have to continue to work even harder to keep justifying your place,” says the media boss whose career spans 31 years. “If you’re not dynamic and vital and adding value, someone else is going to come along and eat your lunch, which is totally fair enough,” he says. Yet Sintras is not afraid to step aside to let newcomers shine. In January he shifted into the role of chairman as chief operating officer Chris Nolan and stepped up to CEO.
“The most important job you have got to do is give people a clear sense of purpose and create great functional collaborative teams,” he says. “Get out of the way and let them do what they are brilliant at. I’ve never been scared of people that are smarter than me, that are younger than me or whatever. You have to embrace that and have everybody rise on the tide.”
Kirstie Clements, the former editor of Vogue Australia who survived in the job for more than a decade before she was fired in January, also valued her team above her own seniority.
“Ultimately for editors you are as good as your team,” she says. “You could be the biggest genius in the world, but if you haven’t got a really good team around you, if you don’t have the budget, and you don’t have the belief system in your ad department, you won’t succeed. The team is everything; it’s a culture. A person is not a culture.”
Clements worked for Vogue for 28 years, having started as a receptionist in 1985. When she took the editor’s job in 1999, the magazine was suffering from sliding circulation and advertisers were pulling out. She was tasked with regaining lost ground after her two predecessors each lasted less than two years in the role. “You have to develop the world’s most thick skin because everybody is a critic. Everybody feels they can do a better job. You’ve got the media, you’ve got your own management, you’ve got clients, and then you’ve got readers. You have got many bosses and you ultimately have to go with your gut instinct because you have so many opinions,” says Clements. “That’s really challenging for editors. It looks easy and it’s a very tantalizing role, to edit in the luxury industry. Everybody wants a piece of it so you have to develop a very thick skin.”
Despite all of this pressure, Clements says the best way to survive is to just focus on the task at hand. “It’s not a popularity contest. You’re ultimately judged on whether you’re delivering so that was what I focused on,” she says. Clements also stresses the importance of separating your identity from the job.
“I didn’t want to fall into that trap of believing that I was the brand; you have got to distance yourself from a brand like that,” she warns.
In a similar way, managing multimillion dollar budgets at a media agency can go to some people’s heads, says Sintras.
“People get attached to spending large amounts of money, and a lot of people responsible for big clients and big business start to think they’re special and better than everybody else as a result of that,” he says. “You need to remind yourself that you’re only as valuable as your clients think you are, so don’t take yourself too seriously because it could all come crashing down around you tomorrow.”
Mitchell says putting profit before people is a common pitfall in the media business and one way to shorten your stay at the top.
“You lose focus of who you’re serving and it’s quite clearly your clients,” he says. “You start to look too inward inside your own company, when you should be looking outward to clients. You don’t respect suppliers i.e. the media itself, as much, and you don’t look after or care for staff.”
Love what you do
Rather than let money be the focus, Sintras says a genuine love for the work is vital to surviving in positions of power.
“You need to love the industry,” he says. “For me it has been fascinating to be in media and marketing at a huge time of structural change, and if you have been bored or unstimulated during this period then you really have no-one to blame but yourself.”
A love of the industry is what has kept radio stalwart Bob Rogers in the business. Throughout his colourful career, Rogers has walked out of radio stations, been fired, moved on and returned, in a pattern that has kept him working in radio for more than 70 years.
Even after he left to start his own business, opening a string of retail clothing stores in the 1980s, Rogers was drawn back to radio.
Now at age 86, Rogers hosts his own show on the Macquarie Radio Network’s 2CH.
“The saying is ‘if you do something that’s a hobby or that you like, you never work for the rest of your life’,” says Rogers. “So there’s a certain pleasure in what you do. You see people getting on the bus, like my dad did during the war, and you think they’re only doing it to make a living they don’t enjoy it. At least we get some pleasure out of it.”
Rogers says it would be hard not to love the job that let him tour with The Beatles as well as conduct a two and a half hour radio interview with American comedian Bill Cosby, who made him laugh so much his stomach hurt.
Rogers also kept his priorities straight and says fame was never part of his plan. “I’ve never wanted to be a star, I just wanted to be successful,” he says. “I’ve often mentioned growing up in the depression years. The major influence on my life was that my father had to wait four-and-a-half years before he could give me the most precious thing I wanted, a push bike. And when I had children I didn’t want to disappoint them or myself by not giving them things they wanted.”
Rogers admits he is a workaholic and while that may be a trait that is expected in someone who has worked in the industry for as long as he has, others say committing all of your time to work is not a smart move if you want to stay at the top.
“It is possible to spend 20 hours in the office every day and still not get everything done,” says Sintras. “Ultimately you have got to figure out what’s really valuable. How do you spend your time to make the most impact and still have time for you and yours, which actually makes you a better manager in the office anyway.”
Without taking time out, Sintas says your time in a particular role can actually decrease.
“People are getting exhausted faster, and it’s a problem with broader work/life balance,” says Sintras. “We have this ‘always on’ mentality and inability to switch off. We need to be more disciplined about forcing people to have downtime and to have boundaries to be allowed to have our own time.” For Sintras at least, being able to take a step back has given him the energy to remain focused and interested giving him a momentum that keeps him on top.
Preparing for the end
Yet no matter what steps you take, sometimes the tenure of a job is beyond your control, something ex-Vogue editor Clements can attest to. She says the pressure put on today’s magazine editors makes staying in the role a major challenge.
She says: “You have to be a diplomat. You have to watch every single thing you say. You have to be a good money manager. You have to be one step ahead of the curve. There’s so much you have to do, and on top of that you have to present a blog, you’ve got to tweet, you’ve got to write columns, it’s just gigantic.”
“Plus you have to look gorgeous and be out and… God. It’s kind of brutal so it isn’t the dream ride that everybody thinks it is.”
As for the media agency world, Sintras says: “There are some in my role who have been around for a year and some for 10 plus years in senior positions so it really depends. Sometimes things happen that are totally out of your control and you don’t have a choice if you’re made redundant or whatever. I don’t think there’s a definitive answer to the lifespan of the role.”
This feature first appeared in Encore. Download it now on iPad, iPhone and Android tablet devices.