RPA - “Servant Leadership” Q&A with Nancy Hill

Servant Leadership: Q&A with Nancy Hill

The former 4As CEO / President and current Agency Sherpa shares her thoughts.

Servant Leadership: Q&A with Nancy Hill

RPA practices a Servant Leadership philosophy when it comes to management. It’s an approach that we feel brings out the best in our people and helps them create the best results for our clients.

Nancy Hill is the founder of Media Sherpas and the former CEO / President of the 4As. She gave a fantastic talk, with Servant Leadership as a main theme, at a recent AdAge conference. So we asked her to share a bit more and were excited that she happily agreed.


Servant Leadership was a big theme of a talk you gave at a recent AdAge conference. What is it about the state of our industry today that led to your thoughts on this?

Everyone knows that we continue to suffer from a talent shortage. People want to work for companies and people that they can believe in. People they feel have their back as a human, not just an employee number. We can't keep operating the same way we always have. We know this with regard to compensation and organization models, and I believe we have to rethink our cultures as well. That always starts at the top.


How would you describe “Servant Leadership”?

The best way to describe it is that leaders are in service to the organization's purpose. Whether that is a creatively driven organization, such as many advertising agencies, or manufacturers of products such as shoes or eyeglasses (TOMS® and Warby Parker™ are also good examples), leadership is there to serve, not be served. They always ask, “What can I do to help you do your job better?”


How do you feel Servant Leadership benefits an agency’s people and culture? How does it benefit clients?

True servant leaders in ad agencies recognize that everything — and I do mean everything — has to be in service to the work. How can we operate to do the best work possible for our clients? How can I, as a leader, help my team to deliver on this? I think the benefit to a client is obvious: better work. I also believe that the client contributes to this culture. The old saying, “a client always gets the kind of work they deserve,” couldn't be more true in this scenario.


In your talk, you shared a great set of words: “HIRE, FIRE, INSPIRE, CONSPIRE.” Can you explain what you mean, and why these are so vital?

The job of a true servant leader is to adhere to thinking about these four parts of employees and the culture that you create:

Your job is to HIRE people who will add to the culture and continue to pursue the best work possible. I specifically use the word “add” here as I think people should stop thinking about hiring for fit and start hiring for add. This is the only way we can create true diversity. (Another passion of mine).

As a leader, you also have to recognize when it is time to FIRE someone. It is critical that you do everything you need to do to give people every benefit of the doubt with regard to their individual approaches, of course. However, once the writing is on the wall, you cannot let someone linger in your organization. People always know when the “body is rejecting the organ,” and will question your commitment to the organization the longer you let someone hang on.

Every single day, you need to ask yourself how you can INSPIRE the people in your organization to do the best work possible. When I was at Chiat/Day, every single screen saver reverted to “Good enough is not enough.” When you walked through the agency after hours, that's all you saw. I don't advocate stealing that approach, but find one that will.
CONSPIRE to deliver that great work with whomever can contribute to enhancing the idea. Whether that is internally with teams that don't normally work with a particular client, other agencies on the client's roster or new production vendors that might bring a fresh perspective, it is critical to encourage healthy debate and collaboration. I always advise my clients to “play nice in the sandbox.” Let everyone else elbow their way to the front of the client. They will be found out and they will be called out. And, it just makes for better work.


Some might think that being a “servant” to the people who work for you means “doing whatever they say.” But in reality, it often means making hard decisions in order to truly do what's right for your people. Sometimes, it’s not what they want, but what they need. In your experience, what are some of the hardest things a Servant Leader has to do?

You are absolutely right when you say that it sometimes requires making hard decisions. New business opportunities are probably the most obvious examples of having to make those decisions. I remember our leadership team making a decision not to pursue a very large client because it would change the agency indelibly. The chief creative officer said during our discussions, "We have to be careful what we eat here. It will change our body forever.”

Another is when to let a client go. “Fire” here can be just as much about knowing when a client is toxic, no matter what that means to your revenue. Or, when a client is just not willing to pay for the services they are getting from the agency, no matter how “sexy” the brand or the work.


We haven't noticed any other agencies with a Servant Leadership philosophy. (Doesn’t mean they don’t exist—we may simply have not found them.) Why do you think it's relatively uncommon in the advertising industry?

They may not use the term "Servant Leadership,” but I do know many agencies who subscribe to this approach. They tend to be the more successful independent agencies. They are more likely to be in a position to do what they think is right because they are not necessarily subject to someone else's idea of how to run their businesses on a day-to-day basis. These agencies have the ability to invest back in the agency and their people.


If someone wanted to learn more about Servant Leadership, do you have any recommendations on where to start?

Much has been written on this subject, so there are an unlimited number of resources. Some of my favorites are HBR and Adam Grant. If you are not following him on Twitter, you are really missing out.