Leadership Lessons from a Former Advertising Guy


“You do not lead by hitting people over the head,” Dwight Eisenhower famously said. “That’s assault, not leadership.”

Even in today’s more enlightened age, some so-called “leaders” still don’t have the message. Some try to lead by announcement, while others try to lead by executive decree. It doesn’t work.

The best leaders work hard to appeal to the heads, hearts, and hopes of others. Rather than trying to lead by telling people where to go, they lead by going to that place themselves and then making a case for it.

Kevin Allen spent decades at the top of advertising giants like McCann-WorldGroup and worked with such brands as MasterCard (he developed the globally famous “Priceless” campaign), Microsoft, Marriott, Johnson & Johnson and other big names. He was also an early part of the Rudy Giuliani team that prepared the turnaround strategies for the City of New York.

Today, Allen is founder and chairman of employee engagement company Plant Jockey. The firm specializes in gamified learning and collaborative mentorship platforms. Translation: It provides a high tech ecosystem that enables emerging leaders to acquire skills and confidence through books, online instruction, and community support.

We took the opportunity to visit with Allen about his latest book, which is part of the leadership learning ecosystem.

Rodger Dean Duncan: Your new book is called The Case of the Missing Cutlery. That’s a rather unorthodox title for a business book. What’s the story behind the title?

Kevin Allen: When I was approached to do a book on leadership, I decided that instead of writing about board room battles from my long and rewarding advertising career, I would select a story from my very humble beginnings as a young manager at an airline catering facility at JFK airport. I felt that up and coming leaders could both relate to and be able to practically apply the lessons to what they face right now.

One day our largest client surprised us with a visit, demanding that we investigate why they were losing cutlery by the thousands. When I looked into it, I discovered that the cutlery was coming out of the wash still stained, and the workers, in fear of getting into trouble, started throwing the cutlery out! Instead of yelling at them, or worse, firing them, I decided we would solve the problem together. In doing so, I learned some of the most important lessons in leadership I would ever learn: If you put your faith in the abilities of your team, they will rally, find solutions, and mobilize to get the job done. Ultimately, it’s a celebration of emotionally intelligent leadership.

Duncan: “Employee engagement” seems to be a huge issue in most every kind of business these days. How do you define it, and to what do you attribute the emphasis on it?

Allen: In what I call the “supply economy” days, management told people what to do through a command-and-control hierarchy. We now live in a “demand economy,” where a company and its brand is a community of people both inside and outside, bound by a common value system, culture, and most important a shared sense of possibility. Contemporary leadership is connecting with the hearts of your people, and inciting them to go with you on a special journey. That’s true engagement.

Duncan: You write about leadership “buoyancy.” Exactly what is that, and what role does it play in employee engagement?

Allen: Buoyancy is a phenomenon whereby, as a leader, you float because the people you have inspired believe that you should, because you’ve truly connected with the motivations and values of your employees. It is based in empathy as well as authenticity.  When employees see that you are dedicated to their well being, you understand them deeply, and you have confidence in them they will reward your belief in them with their belief in you. They will make you float!

Duncan: How does a good leader harness the ambition of followers?

Everyone wants to be part of creating something amazing. I call it the 6 o’clock conversation, where you come home to those special and say excitedly, “Guess what we’re doing!” We all want to be a part of something great, no matter where in the company—the case of the missing cutlery showed me that even at the very foundations of the company, people want to be the very best they can be and feel a part of some greater movement.

Leading is not about sitting and presiding. It’s about taking others on a journey towards a common goal, or what I call a Real Ambition. A Real Ambition is the creation of something great that didn’t exist before; a picture of an exciting future that will mobilize the people who follow you. It must be a benefit to all constituencies, have a certainty of purpose that cascades to all corners of the organization, and be a great leap to a completely new state of being.

Duncan: Most every leader, especially in an environment of change, must deal with resistance. What have you found to be a helpful approach in converting resisters into catalysts?

Allen: A resister is as important as are catalysts in bringing about change.  On the face of it, they are ‘problem children’ at the least, and enemies at the worst. But looking closer, the majority of them harbor fears of their relevant going forward, or perhaps their worry over their ability to perform, or a loss of their place. They need reassurance and airing and where necessary support in the form of being made in readiness for the new challenges.

Like catalysts, who are your cheerleaders, resisters are vital keys to the enlistment process. You must identify their motivation for objecting and if you address their concerns directly and rapidly, these resisters might turn into catalysts.

Converted resisters are worth their weight in gold, and they can swing others in your direction.

This interview by Dr. Duncan was also published by Forbes where he is a regular contributor.

Follow on Twitter @DoctorDuncan

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Rodger Dean Duncan

Rodger Dean Duncan is bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP and a regular contributor to Forbes and Fast Company magazines. He is widely known for his expertise in the strategic management of change, for organizations and for individuals. In 1972 he founded Duncan Worldwide to train and develop leaders. His clients have included some of the top companies in the world, as well as cabinet officers in two White House administrations.
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