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Agency Life

The No Bullsh*t Leader

The No Bullsh*t Leader

Havas Global Comms

Havas Global Comms

May 2, 2019

Havas Creative Global CEO Chris Hirst shares how he became a better leader by cutting out the jargon and being honest about what it takes to build a strong culture.

"Culture is the environment you create in order for your teams to outperform."

After what he would call a low point in his career, Havas Creative newly appointed Global CEO Chris Hirst changed the way he thinks about leadership. The shift started with a business course at Harvard University that he says changed his life and set him on his current career path. His first book, No Bullsh*t Leadership: Why the World Needs More Everyday Leaders and Why That Leader Is You, is out today, and we spoke to him about what qualities make for a good leader, what to do when you feel like you’re in a mid-career funk, and why culture is not defined by Ping-Pong tables and matcha tea in the pantry.

Why did you want to write this book?

I was asked to do a presentation at Cannes Lions for students on leadership and I thought to myself, “How am I going to say something that isn’t the same old shit?” So, after a successful presentation, I went home and wondered if there could be a book in this, or maybe a long essay. Either way, I just started writing and writing and ten thousand words later I had something to run with.

This isn’t just a book for the C-suite though, right?

Correct. In fact, it’s intended to be for people not in the C-suite, really. I like this idea that leadership is difficult but not complicated. There’s this whole industry that has a vested interest in making it complicated because they make billions of dollars. I think that has two effects: one, it inhibits people in leadership positions from fulfilling their potential because of all the complexity that appears to be in the way; second of all, it excludes people from thinking leadership is something for them. It’s the sense that it’s some secret, hidden knowledge that you’re either a part of or not. Therefore, part of clearing away the bullshit is getting away from any of those notions.

Most leaders aren’t the people we think of when we think of leaders. When we think of leaders, we tend to think of generals, CEOs, or politicians. My contention is anybody that has people they’re responsible for is a leader. So, that means most of us—my intention is that the book is for those people.

The title promises “No Bullsh*t Leadership.” What are some experiences you’ve had where leaders were less transparent and a “no bullshit” ethos was needed?

I can give you a generic example that everyone will be familiar with—the leadership offsite. We all do them, but most of the time they result in very little. We sit in an airless conference room, and I think a lot of leadership teams talk about the same thing week in and week out and don’t resolve it or do anything. If you are a leader or part of a leadership team, the most debilitating thing is feeling like you’re unable to make a decision and get things done. I think that is an experience that anybody who’s led a team can relate to. You feel demoralized, demotivated, and disempowered by the inability of yourself or the people immediately around you to make, frankly, very straightforward, non-critical decisions. Trying to help people deal with that is what I want to do.

In your opinion, what qualities make for a good leader?

I don’t have a really simple answer to that question because everyone has their own style, but if put on the spot, I’d say the ability to identify, define, and clearly explain something you’re trying to achieve, whatever that might be. By the way, billions and billions of dollars of the leadership industrial complex are spent making that a really complicated question and it’s not. Next, is the ability to get stuff done in order to get you there. Then, if you had to dig down again, getting stuff done relies on the ability to make decisions.

Conversely, what qualities make for a bad leader?

Indecisiveness, inability to communicate clearly what you’re trying to achieve, being a dick. The list of things…I mean, really, it’s a big list so I could go on and on….

In the book, you talk a lot about culture. Culture isn’t just matcha tea, Pilates, or Ping-Pong tables. What is culture defined by?

I do have a simple answer to that one. Culture is the environment you create in order for your teams to outperform. I can’t think of any definition of leadership that doesn’t involve people. Leadership is about leading a group of people from a defined point in the present to a different and defined point in the future.

In any sort of organization, you might have a group of people you’re responsible for and you’re wondering whether or not you’re a good leader. Well, a good leader will take that group of people and enable them to perform better than the competition. If they aren’t doing that, why the fuck are they there? If the leader turns up and there’s no difference to the team’s performance, then you can save loads of money by getting rid of them!

"To be a great agency you only need to do three things: you have to do work your competitors are jealous of, hire people your competitors are jealous of, and win pitches your competitors are jealous of."

You’ve been surprisingly frank in some recent interviews about your past experience where you felt that you screwed up your career. What led to that thinking, and how did you get out of that funk?

I’d failed over a long period of time. The backstory to that is that I was hired as part of this rock star new leadership team to change a broken business. The short version of it is, six years later the business hadn’t changed. It was still a shitty business. So, where I’d been brought in as the solution, I tangibly hadn’t been the solution and, arguably, therefore, was part of the problem.

Then I got lucky. They hired a new CEO and the guy they hired had never worked at an agency before, so they needed me because I knew how to work an agency. Then, with a little bit of leverage I had, I asked them to pay for me to go to Harvard.

Harvard changed my life because it’s a very particular experience. You go to Boston, you don’t take your family, you don’t take your friends, and you live an incredibly regimented life for eight weeks, six days a week. You’re just thrown in. In that environment I realized suddenly that in this group of people I wasn’t “Chris, the passed over managing director of a shitty advertising agency,” I was just “Chris.” No one knew anything about me, so I could be anybody I wanted to be.

The cheesy version of it is that it made me think we can be whomever we want to be. It’s just all stories in our head. If we can break and reform those stories in our head, we can become not a different person, but different enough. I came back a new person and got lucky again and was promoted by that new boss. The rest is history.

What advice would you have for someone who is feeling that mid-career funk?

The answer to that would be to make decisions. One of the reasons I got into a funk is because I don’t think I made enough decisions on a personal level.

Many people fear the uncertainty of change more than they do the consequences of doing nothing. People can feel disempowered and like they have no choices and things are out of control when in reality everything is in your control. I’ve got a bit of stoicism in the idea that nobody is responsible for how you feel. Unhappiness is a choice you make. I think a combination of people telling themselves the wrong story leads people to overthink decisions. Jeff Bezos talks about one- and two-way doors—most decisions are two-ways doors, particularly career decisions.

What do you have to say about the role “luck” plays in leadership success?

I think luck does play a role. I’m not at all a spiritual person, but one possible argument is that nobody has more or less luck than anyone else. Now you have to take a lot of factors into account, but all things being even, there’s no reason to suppose any one person is luckier than the other.

You’ve just been promoted to Global CEO of Havas Creative. What are your goals for the business?

Our business isn’t a complicated business. To be a great agency you only need to do three things: you have to do work your competitors are jealous of, hire people your competitors are jealous of, and win pitches your competitors are jealous of. And, if you do all three of those things, you’re smashing it. If you do just one of those things, you’re doing pretty well. So, we have to do those three things.

What does meaningful mean to you?

Agencies are just buildings full of people. The difference between success and failure is simply the talent and the culture within their walls. It’s my job to build and nurture a culture that allows our people to perform at their best, all of the time.

The best businesses are the ones where failure is seen as a prerequisite of success. Where the culture allows them to grow through their successes and their failures, through their mistakes and their accomplishments. People succeed when they are given the space and support to find their own solutions. These are the teams that achieve the apparently impossible. That’s meaningful to me.

What’s your least favorite advertising buzzword?

“Adland”…I fucking hate it. No particular reason why, I just think it’s bullshit.

A young Chris Hirst has just landed his first job in the business, what advice do you give him?

Live in the present more.

What do you do to relax?

Read. I either read contemporary fiction, which I’m quite picky about, or history.

What’s the last TV show you binge-watched?

Re-binge watching Game of Thrones. It’s a phenomenon that program.

"Culture is the environment you create in order for your teams to outperform."

After what he would call a low point in his career, Havas Creative newly appointed Global CEO Chris Hirst changed the way he thinks about leadership. The shift started with a business course at Harvard University that he says changed his life and set him on his current career path. His first book, No Bullsh*t Leadership: Why the World Needs More Everyday Leaders and Why That Leader Is You, is out today, and we spoke to him about what qualities make for a good leader, what to do when you feel like you’re in a mid-career funk, and why culture is not defined by Ping-Pong tables and matcha tea in the pantry.

Why did you want to write this book?

I was asked to do a presentation at Cannes Lions for students on leadership and I thought to myself, “How am I going to say something that isn’t the same old shit?” So, after a successful presentation, I went home and wondered if there could be a book in this, or maybe a long essay. Either way, I just started writing and writing and ten thousand words later I had something to run with.

This isn’t just a book for the C-suite though, right?

Correct. In fact, it’s intended to be for people not in the C-suite, really. I like this idea that leadership is difficult but not complicated. There’s this whole industry that has a vested interest in making it complicated because they make billions of dollars. I think that has two effects: one, it inhibits people in leadership positions from fulfilling their potential because of all the complexity that appears to be in the way; second of all, it excludes people from thinking leadership is something for them. It’s the sense that it’s some secret, hidden knowledge that you’re either a part of or not. Therefore, part of clearing away the bullshit is getting away from any of those notions.

Most leaders aren’t the people we think of when we think of leaders. When we think of leaders, we tend to think of generals, CEOs, or politicians. My contention is anybody that has people they’re responsible for is a leader. So, that means most of us—my intention is that the book is for those people.

The title promises “No Bullsh*t Leadership.” What are some experiences you’ve had where leaders were less transparent and a “no bullshit” ethos was needed?

I can give you a generic example that everyone will be familiar with—the leadership offsite. We all do them, but most of the time they result in very little. We sit in an airless conference room, and I think a lot of leadership teams talk about the same thing week in and week out and don’t resolve it or do anything. If you are a leader or part of a leadership team, the most debilitating thing is feeling like you’re unable to make a decision and get things done. I think that is an experience that anybody who’s led a team can relate to. You feel demoralized, demotivated, and disempowered by the inability of yourself or the people immediately around you to make, frankly, very straightforward, non-critical decisions. Trying to help people deal with that is what I want to do.

In your opinion, what qualities make for a good leader?

I don’t have a really simple answer to that question because everyone has their own style, but if put on the spot, I’d say the ability to identify, define, and clearly explain something you’re trying to achieve, whatever that might be. By the way, billions and billions of dollars of the leadership industrial complex are spent making that a really complicated question and it’s not. Next, is the ability to get stuff done in order to get you there. Then, if you had to dig down again, getting stuff done relies on the ability to make decisions.

Conversely, what qualities make for a bad leader?

Indecisiveness, inability to communicate clearly what you’re trying to achieve, being a dick. The list of things…I mean, really, it’s a big list so I could go on and on….

In the book, you talk a lot about culture. Culture isn’t just matcha tea, Pilates, or Ping-Pong tables. What is culture defined by?

I do have a simple answer to that one. Culture is the environment you create in order for your teams to outperform. I can’t think of any definition of leadership that doesn’t involve people. Leadership is about leading a group of people from a defined point in the present to a different and defined point in the future.

In any sort of organization, you might have a group of people you’re responsible for and you’re wondering whether or not you’re a good leader. Well, a good leader will take that group of people and enable them to perform better than the competition. If they aren’t doing that, why the fuck are they there? If the leader turns up and there’s no difference to the team’s performance, then you can save loads of money by getting rid of them!

"To be a great agency you only need to do three things: you have to do work your competitors are jealous of, hire people your competitors are jealous of, and win pitches your competitors are jealous of."

You’ve been surprisingly frank in some recent interviews about your past experience where you felt that you screwed up your career. What led to that thinking, and how did you get out of that funk?

I’d failed over a long period of time. The backstory to that is that I was hired as part of this rock star new leadership team to change a broken business. The short version of it is, six years later the business hadn’t changed. It was still a shitty business. So, where I’d been brought in as the solution, I tangibly hadn’t been the solution and, arguably, therefore, was part of the problem.

Then I got lucky. They hired a new CEO and the guy they hired had never worked at an agency before, so they needed me because I knew how to work an agency. Then, with a little bit of leverage I had, I asked them to pay for me to go to Harvard.

Harvard changed my life because it’s a very particular experience. You go to Boston, you don’t take your family, you don’t take your friends, and you live an incredibly regimented life for eight weeks, six days a week. You’re just thrown in. In that environment I realized suddenly that in this group of people I wasn’t “Chris, the passed over managing director of a shitty advertising agency,” I was just “Chris.” No one knew anything about me, so I could be anybody I wanted to be.

The cheesy version of it is that it made me think we can be whomever we want to be. It’s just all stories in our head. If we can break and reform those stories in our head, we can become not a different person, but different enough. I came back a new person and got lucky again and was promoted by that new boss. The rest is history.

What advice would you have for someone who is feeling that mid-career funk?

The answer to that would be to make decisions. One of the reasons I got into a funk is because I don’t think I made enough decisions on a personal level.

Many people fear the uncertainty of change more than they do the consequences of doing nothing. People can feel disempowered and like they have no choices and things are out of control when in reality everything is in your control. I’ve got a bit of stoicism in the idea that nobody is responsible for how you feel. Unhappiness is a choice you make. I think a combination of people telling themselves the wrong story leads people to overthink decisions. Jeff Bezos talks about one- and two-way doors—most decisions are two-ways doors, particularly career decisions.

What do you have to say about the role “luck” plays in leadership success?

I think luck does play a role. I’m not at all a spiritual person, but one possible argument is that nobody has more or less luck than anyone else. Now you have to take a lot of factors into account, but all things being even, there’s no reason to suppose any one person is luckier than the other.

You’ve just been promoted to Global CEO of Havas Creative. What are your goals for the business?

Our business isn’t a complicated business. To be a great agency you only need to do three things: you have to do work your competitors are jealous of, hire people your competitors are jealous of, and win pitches your competitors are jealous of. And, if you do all three of those things, you’re smashing it. If you do just one of those things, you’re doing pretty well. So, we have to do those three things.

What does meaningful mean to you?

Agencies are just buildings full of people. The difference between success and failure is simply the talent and the culture within their walls. It’s my job to build and nurture a culture that allows our people to perform at their best, all of the time.

The best businesses are the ones where failure is seen as a prerequisite of success. Where the culture allows them to grow through their successes and their failures, through their mistakes and their accomplishments. People succeed when they are given the space and support to find their own solutions. These are the teams that achieve the apparently impossible. That’s meaningful to me.

What’s your least favorite advertising buzzword?

“Adland”…I fucking hate it. No particular reason why, I just think it’s bullshit.

A young Chris Hirst has just landed his first job in the business, what advice do you give him?

Live in the present more.

What do you do to relax?

Read. I either read contemporary fiction, which I’m quite picky about, or history.

What’s the last TV show you binge-watched?

Re-binge watching Game of Thrones. It’s a phenomenon that program.

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