For Pete Imwalle, RPA’s CEO, nothing hones leadership skills like a trial by fire.

Leading Through Adversity

I was recently asked to give a presentation on leading through adversity to a group of agency executives at a 4A’s event.  It reminded me that in the agency business, we tend to train people on how to do the work a lot more than we train them on how to lead the people doing the work. I will be sharing within RPA, and I was asked to share a few of the key takeaways.

My background in leadership started in the ‘90s when I took over RPA’s young digital practice. It was the pioneering days in digital advertising. We were constantly inventing new services and service models. The environment could be described as “adversity,” but it was really just evolving rapidly and that creates a sense of chaos and anxiety for many. I was lucky to be leading a team that found it exhilarating. It was a time of invention and constant learning.

By 2007, the digital practice was too large to be a separate unit, so we integrated all the digital subject matter experts (SMEs) into the “mothership” at RPA. I focused on integrating our digital practice into a truly holistic offering for our clients.  

After that I took on the COO (Chief Operating Officer) role and later the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) title. I share my journey from traditional to digital to holistic because that’s where I was challenged to lead the most. Below are practices learned from my experiences over the years.  

Be Transparent

Employees and clients want to know the truth. People want to know the good and the bad. Share what you can, hold back if you must, but never lie. You can’t come back from being caught in a lie. Transparency reduces surprises, and in business, surprises are rarely welcome. Ensure everyone knows they have access to leadership and can ask anything. Now, with so many working remotely, it is more important than ever to hold weekly Teams meeting office hours. Communicate intentionally with those who work for you.  

Value Curiosity

Future-proofing, one of the most overused terms in business, means to anticipate the future and develop systems and products that will be useful in the future. Unfortunately, we are rarely good at predicting the future. Think Second Life 20 years ago or NFTs 20 months ago. The metaverse is still debatable. AI is a lock, but how will we be using it? Instead of trying to guess, hire people who are curious and constantly learning. They will make sure your company and services are keeping pace, and they are willing to look at new things instead of protecting the status quo.  

Don’t Micromanage

Trusting other people is the way your company will grow. Giving people ownership allows them to move more quickly and it also means they are invested and paying attention instead of waiting for direction. Clearly communicating expectations and showing what success looks like will foster trust in your employees. When you give good direction, people will usually nail it the first time.  

Be a Coach, Not a Scorekeeper

Teaching and mentoring put teams in a position to win. To some, managing is giving reviews and correcting mistakes. An employee should never be surprised by a bad review; they should be expecting it based on conversations already held. Same for a good review.  

All the practices above exemplify, “People First,” RPA’s philosophy. It’s about respecting people and treating them the way you’d like to be treated. People often laugh it off as a feel-good, philanthropic approach to business. It does feel good to make people happy. It is also much easier to keep people happy than it is to replace them with people who will know less and likely cost more. Putting people first is a business decision. It helps RPA achieve one of the lowest turnover rates in the business, for both clients and Associates. Maintaining long relationships fosters continuity and shared purpose. Those are the things that help us consistently be a catalyst for growth with our clients’ businesses and, ultimately, our people.

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