Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Leadership: it's lonely at the middle.

          I had a student a couple of years ago who said his goal was to someday be in middle management. I couldn't believe what I heard, so I asked him why.

          He told me it was safer in the middle. You got respect, a good salary, but you didn't have to make the big decisions.

          I understood completely. For years, I thought I was a born employee. Sure, I always thought I'd be a good leader, and had a million ideas for doing things better than they were being done. Yet there was comfort in having a boss. Someone to take all that weight off your shoulders.

          When I first became a copy supervisor at an advertising agency, I had eight writers working for me. I got a big office and my job was to make assignments to the creative teams and evaluate and sharpen the work they did. For a couple of weeks I loved the big white oak desk and the closet for my boots and overcoat. I even had a secretary (that was before they were reclassified as executive assistants).

          Soon I didn't like that I didn't really have anything to do. I didn't want to assign all the good jobs to myself because that would've upset my people, I thought;  and the regular ads I needed to assign to keep everyone in the group busy. Except myself. It was a perfect case of the Peter Principle. I had been  promoted to a job that wasn't for me.

           It wasn't long before I diagnosed my unhappiness. A bricklayer isn't happy unless he's laying bricks. I began assign jobs to myself, to do with Gene, the art supervisor. Soon I was having fun again.

           That's when I realized it is good to be the top dog. You get to make the decisions. If things aren't right, you can make them right. Your destiny isn't completely in the hands of others. I went on to eventually become Executive V.P. of a large Chicago ad agency, and a member of their executive committee, but I never stopped making ads and commercials. I need to do creative work every day or I get grumpy.

           What's the lesson of this story? Some people are perfect for middle management, but don't make it your goal too early in your career. Aim higher.

            As Chicago ad agency founder Leo Burnett used to say, "Reach for the stars. You may not get there, but you won't come up with a handful of mud, either."

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