What It’s Like Taking on a New Leadership Role in the Middle of a Pandemic

Agency executives fresh on the job are grappling with issues their predecessors never dealt with

A person sitting at a big table looking out of a window
C-suite leaders who recently took on their roles are facing a unique set of challenges right now. Getty Images
Headshot of Minda Smiley

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Last month, Tracey Pattani left her role at Digitas to become CEO of BSSP, an independent agency across the San Francisco Bay in Sausilito, California.

In the five weeks since she officially took on the top job, Pattani has faced challenges she could have never foreseen when she initially agreed to the position. The swift spread of COVID-19 has forced her to shelve whatever plans she came in with and focus on leading BSSP through a global pandemic that’s resulted in layoffs, furloughs and other cost-saving measures across the advertising industry.

“I came in with big ideas and dreams, but very quickly the situation demanded a different priority,” she said.

At a time when leadership is arguably more important than ever, recently installed executives such as Pattani are being asked to make decisions and provide guidance for people that they’ve barely gotten the chance to know.

“I don’t have the benefit of the relationships and trust that comes from working with people over time. It just hasn’t been built yet,” Pattani said. “I find that I work harder to explain my rationale and really sell through my decisions.”

On top of that, little time spent in the office means they haven’t had the chance to get a feel for the company’s culture, relying instead on Zoom chats and phone calls to ascertain how employees are reacting to changes.

That’s not to say there aren’t advantages to being the new kid on the block. For instance, Pattani said she’s been able to avoid the biases, blind spots and emotions that can sometimes come with being in an organization for a long period of time, giving her a “pure sightline” into the business and what needs to be done to weather the current crisis.

Leading through a screen

John Maxham became chief creative officer of Laughlin Constable, an agency with offices in Chicago and Milwaukee, in March. He’s spent more time virtually leading his 40-person creative team than actually being in the office with them.

“It’s been weird,” he said. “I’m painfully aware of starting a new job and just being a face in a box on the screen, and having people try to get to know me that way.”

On video calls, where people are often distracted by children, pets, spouses and whatever else they might be looking at on their screen, Maxham said it can be difficult to gauge how employees feel about him and the ideas he’s bringing to the table. During a recent video call, Maxham said he felt like a “comedian bombing” when he barely got any laughs and reactions during a meeting. He’s found that minimizing the group view during video conferences helps him focus on delivering information and announcements instead of becoming distracted by how employees are responding.

"I’m painfully aware of just being a face in a box on the screen, and having people try to get to know me that way."
—John Maxham, CCO of Laughlin Constable

“The standard for attention on a Zoom conference is very different than in person because people might be doing multiple things at the same time and you really just don’t know,” he said. “You’re in this competitive environment of distractions.”

It’s not exactly an ideal time to meet clients either, many of whom are dealing with their own internal changes and problems. Maxham said several of his introductions to clients have been virtual, and he’s gotten the sense that they’ve got “so much on their mind” besides meeting the latest agency hire.

“What I try to do is just introduce myself and be as helpful as possible, understanding that they’ve got so many other things going on,” he said. “Meeting the new guy might not be one of their top priorities.”

Linda Knight, who became chief creative officer of creative agency Observatory in January, said the leadership team has had to make some “tough decisions” because of the current crisis. Knight said she’s had more one-on-one calls and personal Zoom chats with employees than she likely would under normal circumstances at this stage, noting that it’s accelerated the pace at which she’s gotten to know her colleagues.

“I’ve just had to work harder and get to know people much quicker on a much deeper level,” Knight said. “I think it’s good in some ways that that’s happened. It doesn’t feel natural, but I think we’re all trying harder, and in the end we’re going to be closer and have a better working relationship.”

Identifying the positive

When Justine Armour became Grey New York’s chief creative officer in February, she said she was excited about the agency’s creative and business momentum. According to Armour, who’d previously served as executive creative director at 72andSunny New York, she was ready to “jump onto this moving train and keep it going.”

That, of course, all changed in March when the agency began working from home.

“I’m in my apartment trying to lead a group of people who don’t know me from a screen. That’s probably been the biggest challenge,” Armour said. “I’ve had to be part leader [and] part counselor to a lot of people that I don’t know yet.”

Even so, Armour said the circumstances have, in some ways, helped break down barriers between leadership and staff. For example, the hierarchies that can manifest in an office environment start to fade when everyone is working from home.

"I’m in my apartment trying to lead a group of people who don’t know me from a screen."
—Justine Armour, CCO of Grey New York

“It’s become a little bit more of a meritocracy in that it’s sort of flattened our structures, which I’m very happy with,” she said. “I can ask stupid questions because I’m new to everything.”

Denise Wong, CEO of One & All, an Omnicom agency focused on the nonprofit sector, has also managed to find a few bright spots along the way. Wong, who joined the agency at the start of the year, admits that the 30-60-90 day plan she arrived with lost much of its relevance when “everything changed with abrupt velocity” last month.

Despite having to refocus her priorities, Wong said some of the issues she’d planned to tackle as CEO have actually managed to resolve themselves under these new working arrangements. Case in point: With 250 employees across offices in Los Angeles and Atlanta, Wong said she’d been trying to figure out how to “bring these two offices together in a way that makes everyone feel more like one team.”

Now that everyone’s working from home, she said the geographic boundaries have all but been erased, making it easier for the two offices to come together.

“It has unified the team in a way that would have taken much longer and a different approach had we not found ourselves in this situation,” Wong said. “Once you go into a virtual agency, it doesn’t matter where you are.”

@Minda_Smiley minda.smiley@adweek.com Minda Smiley is an agencies reporter at Adweek.