An ode to the importance of learning what your colleagues actually do

After a day of seeing how the other half live, PHD's Alex Pacey realised the value in walking the floors and actually finding out what your colleagues do.

PHD runs an ongoing initiative called ‘Fly on the Wall’. It’s an opportunity for anyone in the agency to partner up with and shadow another member of the agency for a day, in an effort to better understand one another and other functions in the organisation.

I recently spent time shadowing Michael Cheffers, an account coordinator who works on the HP and SAB accounts, and learned that I may not have what it takes to be a coordinator in 2018.

First of all, I learned that Cheffers was once in the army. Let’s face it, I wouldn’t have signed up for it had I known beforehand.

So many questions came to mind… Why did he leave? Was he forced out? What happens if I wind him up? How many sharp things are there on his desk? Luckily, I escaped the experience with nothing more than a bruised ego.

Let’s be positive and call this whole thing a learning experience; it would be mean to say that it was terrifying. My approach to this was not without a small degree of trepidation.

It has always seemed to me, throughout my 17 years in media, that there is a significant number of people who work under the assumption that we must remember how to do everything we’ve ever done since day one. So, the ‘opportunity’ to expose myself as a big-wig-know-nothing charlatan was, let’s say, nerve wracking. Turns out I needn’t have worried.

After an initial sizing up, Cheffers treated me in a manner reminiscent of a teenage boy explaining to his grandfather how to use an iPad for the umpteenth time. I learnt three fundamental things throughout this experience.

The level of knowledge needed to do an entry level role is astronomical in comparison to years prior

Almost immediately, we were in conversation and using terminology that I simply didn’t understand. Did everyone else know this stuff?

I was pretty sure that everyone was looking at me, I tried to stare unblinkingly at the screen. Heaven forbid I make eye contact with Cheffers or the rest of his team.

It was clear that the complexity and levels of understanding that are now expected at a coordinator level annihilates what I was doing when I entered this industry. I’m not smart enough to be a coordinator. This is not false modesty.

I’m not playing for cheap laughs. I turned up expecting to talk about checking confirms and something called ‘holdings’ – total disclosure here, I was never a coordinator (probably a redundant explanation) and within approximately 20 minutes, I was learning new things.

I was always used to people more senior then me talking about stuff I didn’t quite grasp, so it was quite the experience to hear it from someone much more ‘junior’.

The student becomes the master

That got me thinking. Traditionally, it used to be that you taught the person more junior than you. You’ve had the experience of doing their job and now it’s time to pass on the pearls of wisdom you’ve accumulated.

It dawned on me quickly though that through the ‘Cheffers experience’ (as my therapist now refers to it), while this model is not broken, it may need an upgrade.

Today, we have got to be open to learning from anyone. Most of the people that are coming into our agencies are self-starters, they’re not waiting to be taught. They are straight into the mix, building new models and approaches to solve client issues.

Whilst it’s human nature that a more senior person should feel the need to hold the most knowledge, the speed of change and the level of people entering our industry makes this simply unsustainable.

Importance of walking the floors

The single most important thing to come out of this experience for me was the clear and obvious need, no matter how senior you are, to get out there and ‘walk the floors’. As with most agencies, we run an open plan office, and I’ve made it a point to sit in amongst different teams throughout the year.

But still, you can only ever learn so much about what’s going on in the day-to-day, and how the vision for the agency filters through.

It’s something I now personally have a real focus on, to the point that a certain member of staff now refers to me as ‘the lurker’. I’m told it’s a term of endearment.

Alex Pacey is chief planning officer at PHD.



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