Building a new-age agency through democracy and empathy
Dheeraj Sinha, CEO & Chief Strategy Officer, South Asia, Leo BurnettLeo Burnett
Dheeraj Sinha of Leo Burnett writes about some of the biggest leadership lessons he's learnt during the pandemic

Building a new-age agency through democracy and empathy

Dheeraj Sinha of Leo Burnett writes about some of the biggest leadership lessons he's learnt during the pandemic
  • The pandemic has brought about a sea change in the way we work, communicate and in general live our lives. It has also led to a big change in the idea of leadership.
  • Dheeraj Sinha, CEO & Chief Strategy Officer, South Asia, Leo Burnett writes about his leadership experience in the past 1.5 years and tell us about some of his biggest learnings from the experience, and how that is shaping the culture of the agency.
What this pandemic has done to technology adoption across the board, by making zoom calls, digital payments, telemedicine and e-commerce more popular than they ever were, it has also done to the idea of leadership. Leaders have been baked in the heat of two consecutive waves of this virus, and hopefully emerged wiser. The onset of the pandemic, brought us a challenge which had no playbook. There were no do’s and don’ts on how to manage this. At Leo Burnett, we were quick to realize that we have no clue on how this will shape up, hence we needed to build ourselves a compass to guide us through this storm.

We did two things. One, devolution of power and decision-making. We built a platform for our top 50 leaders to come together and discuss the strategies and take collective decisions on our future. One of the biggest learnings of the pandemic is that no one can fight this alone, but together we will emerge stronger. As an agency, we have never come more together and stronger.

We have also realized that one size doesn’t fit all in situations such as these. There might be a team member who needs to take time off, yet there might be another team-member who wants to get the work done and not let it pile-up. We therefore, empowered our team leaders to make these decisions on how to use time-off and pressure-release initiatives, than implement an agency-wide policy. We did however run programs to make sure that basics such as lunch-time were seen as sacrosanct, because the blurring of work-life space had started threatening even these.

Second, we built a framework to navigate our thinking. We realized that both our people and our clients needed a purpose, a guiding principle to navigate through this. Our short-term thinking framework – 0-3-6 – was designed to be this compass. Its harnessed our collective power through facilitated workshops to build short-term strategies across brands.

We would have run over 50 workshops and produced over 1000 pieces of work as a result of this. This means that both our people and clients didn’t feel rudderless, we knew that we were rowing the boat together out of the crises.

Yet another challenge from the leadership perspective has been the overall energy of the agency. A creative agency is all about its energy. As I have said before, sometimes I feel that my job is more of a Chief Energy Officer. But how do you keep the energy going in such times? We realized that while we were meeting the senior folks on a regular basis, now that we weren’t on the agency floor, we weren’t able to interact directly with our younger folks. So I started having tea-sessions with younger members of the organization. What amazed me was the ownership and dedication with which each one of our people were delivering work, despite the context. In these sessions, we also underlined the need to take care of ourselves and being there for each other.

Never before has empathy been called to action in such a big way, when it comes to leadership. In retrospect, we managed to navigate the first wave at the agency, rather well. We didn’t have to reduce salaries or let go of people for reasons related to the pandemic.

We managed our revenue and profitability well – all because we stood shoulder to shoulder as a team. The second wave however, was a bigger test as we have never felt so helpless as leaders. I am sure everyone struggled trying to arrange lifesaving resources for their people.

This was the moment when you realized that there’s no power greater than people coming together to help each other. When no corporate tie-up or connection was working, it was the power of people standing up for each other that helped saved lives.

If there’s one thing that I would take away from this pandemic is the power of people to come together and look in the face of adversity. As leaders, our job is to make this collective happen. To prepare the right pitch for the team to bat fearlessly.