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Susan Credle’s Meditations on Leadership Are a Career Detox for 2024

15 December 2023

Susan Credle’s Meditations on Leadership
Are a Career Detox for 2024


London, UK

Speaking at this year’s Creative LIAisons event in Las Vegas, FCB’s global chief creative officer, shared her views on generosity, flexibility and finding your leadership style, writes LBB's Laura Swinton

It’s that time of year when our thoughts turn to the year ahead. For those who have the chance to slow down for the holidays, you might find yourself reflecting on what went well in the past 12 months and how you might want to show up differently after the bells.
And when it comes to work, that might take the form of figuring out how to be a better leader - or even figuring out how to take that first step on that leadership journey. 
One person who has thought a lot about that - and learned a lot along the way - is FCB’s global CCO Susan Credle. Speaking at this year’s Creative LIAisons event in Las Vegas (whereby scores of up-and-coming industry talent from around the world is whisked off to Nevada by the London International Awards to hear from advertising’s leading thinkers and to power up their careers), Susan shared something of her own philosophies on leadership, which have developed over time and through trial and error. 
It’s one of those universal truisms that creatives often get little support as they become leaders, so small wonder that after the talk itself, Susan found herself surrounded by a group of around 25 women bombarding her with questions. We figured that you might benefit from some of that insight too.

Figuring Out How You Lead Takes Time

It’s taken time and a bit of trial and error for Susan to figure out what leadership means to her - no one has it all mapped out from the moment they try to step up. However, she says, she does believe that leadership is something that can be learned.
She recalls that in her early days at BBDO, the leadership style was terrifyingly ‘Warrior’. “I tried it and I felt stupid and I had an outer body experience,” she said. “I remember in that moment going, ‘I think I’m a terrible leader’. It was in that moment of realising nobody was coming with me. Nobody wanted to join my journey.”
But, gradually, her own style emerged and she learned what worked. Susan says that coaching and talking with friends can really help identifying your frustrations and also, what your team is excelling at.
“I had a weird moment at BBDO where I had these creatives come up and they said, ‘Can I be in your group?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t have a group’. And they’re like, ‘…well you do’. I think I said, ‘I don’t have a group, I just give briefs to people that I think are talented, and then they do the work. And I go and I sell it, and they go make the work - and they get excited because they’re building their portfolio… Oh my Lord I think I have a group’. But it just got built by taking care of people, recognising their talent and helping them succeed. So I think leadership absolutely can be learned.”

There Are Many Ways to Lead - and We Need a Bit of All of Them

The core of Susan’s presentation revolved around the archetypes of leadership, the different characters that we identify with or take on as leaders. From the open-ended Dreamer to the wise and authoritative Sovereign, the meticulously-mapped out Strategist, the fearsome, galvanising Warrior, the fast-thinking, never-settling Change Agent, and warm and empathetic Nurturer. These archetypes she had uncovered at a leadership workshop led by Laurence Olivier’s son, called Olivier Mythodrama.
As she explored each archetype, it soon became clear that no one type is perfect and each has its flaws. The nurturer helps people grow, but he gets burned out from doing too much for people. The warrior leads from the front and can lead a team like a ferocious, tightly-bonded gang, but that energy turned inwards can become bullying and belittling. The experienced and wise sovereign can find it hard to listen to others and can be perceived as being narcissistic. The strategist can provide comfort with a clear and detailed vision, but can quickly become rigid and unable to lead a team through shifting sands. The revolutionary change agent can help turnaround a failing team or get a start-up off the ground but they can become addicted to the adrenaline of change for the sake of change. And the fearless, free-flowing dreamer can easily lose sight of the practicalities of a situation.
Most of us find ourselves identifying with one or two archetypes over the others, and it’s important to be able to check yourself and make sure you’re not lapsing into the more negative tendencies. “The thing that you think you're really great at could actually be the thing that comes back and gets you - just to be aware of them.”
We may even find ourselves pulling back from certain archetypes because they make us feel uncomfortable - but we may find ourselves in a position when we need to lean into that very archetype.
For Susan, that archetype is the dreamer. “So for me, weirdly, I love to be in my head with thoughts, but I don't think I'm a dreamer. I think I get very nervous when I'm just dreaming into the unknown. I tend to want to be anchored and why this is good, why it would work, what's the strategy? I recognise that I do have a little bit of a fear of the blank page. The question is, so how do you start leaning into that? Because in this room, if you go ‘the dreamer’s uncomfortable’, you either say, ‘well, then I'll just pick another style of leadership’, or do you say, ‘alright, if that scares me, how am I going to get unafraid of the dreamer part?’. For me, a lot of times when I see something that like this is I tend to hire people that fill in that gap for me. And I'm like, ‘I need a dreamer on my team’, because that dreamer will help me not be so afraid of that space.”
In another example, she shares the story of a friend who found the ‘sovereign’ aspect of leadership challenging - getting up with a microphone and sharing words of wisdom was something he dreaded. So he took improv comedy classes.
One really tangible piece of advice that she shared with the audience was to spend time really thinking about each of the archetypes, identifying the strengths of the kind of leader you are, and understanding how that strength could also show up negatively. Then think about the styles that make you really uncomfortable and figure out how you can embrace it.
“The beautiful thing about having this arsenal of leadership styles is that in any given situation, you'll know which one to call on. So a great leader should want to be all six. And a really great leader knows in this situation, what's needed, and how far to push that leadership style.”

Generosity Works

Kindness - which isn’t the same as bland niceness - is a core principle of leadership for Susan. For her, kindness means generosity and it’s something that tries to encourage across the whole network.
“At FCB we’re a smaller global network. And so when we were looking for how we were going to stand out, and what our goals would be, we all came together and said, ‘We can't be competitive with each other internally. It's too small.’. And so we built the company around generosity, and wanting to make each other better. So every idea that goes through FCB, the top 25 people look at it, push it, add to it.”
Susan reflects on a comment FCB’s London CCO Owen Lee recently made to her. He said that whenever he sees any agency in the network win, he gets excited because, even though he and his team aren’t getting the plaudits or awards, he remembers first seeing the idea and contributing to making that little idea a big idea.
“And it’s hard. Because we’re reared in this industry to be competitive… When you are generous to each other, I think we all win. When I look at the numbers in this industry, there’s enough to go around and yet we all want to prove that one agency is better than the other, or that one’s no good, or nobody’s doing anything. What’s the point of that conversation? Lift it up… Stop tearing down people to prove that you’re better. It doesn’t work. It is a bad direction.”
Of course, as mentioned above, kindness isn’t the same as niceness and being generous means spending time to help make the work better, not just giving the work a free pass. “Somebody said, ‘is kindness being nice?’. No, it’s kind. We have a rule at FCB that the meanest thing you can do to the work is not push it.”

Feedback Is Not About Taste, but Teaching

One of the most important skills to learn is how to give feedback worth listening to. Flippantly saying ‘that sucks!’ or reacting harshly because you’re feeling stress is not going to help your teams grow. It may be time to lean into the sovereign or nurturer archetypes and use the opportunity to teach.
“If you’re giving feedback with impatience and frustration, it’s not very good feedback… Everybody’s trying. So I think that you have to assume best intentions - they brought this in thinking, so there was something there. The other thing I think you have to do is come from a place of wanting someone to get better.”
Most of us can remember being on the receiving end of useless feedback and it may be worth using those memories to create a more helpful experience for those we lead. “I could not stand the feedback that I used to get at my first agency, which was ‘I don't like it’,” recalls Susan. “Well, first of all, I'm not doing advertising for you, I’m doing advertising for the world. And I'm not sure you get to speak for everybody. So I don't like that it’s a very ugly, ego-led response to work. I hate that. Like, who are you?”
“A great leader, especially when you’re feeding back, is a teacher. So how are you going to get people to learn? And, by the way, if you take time to teach in your feedback, the next time you won’t have to give as much feedback because they’re learning.”

Getting Out of the Scarcity Mindset

One of the things that really makes leadership hard for creatives in particular is that they have to pull the psychological equivalent of a handbrake turn. Often, the general competitive culture of the industry at large means that getting a foot in the door and making your mark requires a kind of selfishness - leadership at all levels requires you to think about the bigger picture.
“It requires almost a 180 in how you show up, because when you’re starting off, it’s a culture of scarcity. This is my brief, my idea, my talent, my client, my thing, mine, mine, mine. You don’t want to share your idea. You don’t want to tell anybody, somebody might steal it, somebody might get more credit. And that’s sort of how we’re taught to show up at the beginning of this job - very protective and secretive. And then all of a sudden, a creative leader is supposed to be the opposite, which is very generous.”
Years ago, Susan had a creative team that had six junior teams reporting into them. Whenever they’d present the work and Susan identified the standout pieces, they would claim credit. To make a point, one day, Susan said that she had identified a way to save the company $2 million dollars - by firing the other teams as all the good work was coming from them. As they got nervous, Susan explained they had been treating the teams that reported into them as ‘fat wood’, oily sticks you put at the bottom of a fireplace to help the bigger logs catch light. Without them feeding ‘the fat’, these big ideas would be impossible. From then on, she said, she wanted them to give credit to other people on every project they did.
“From now on, every time you buy an idea, sometimes you're gonna give 100% of it away. Sometimes you're gonna get 50%, sometimes 20%, but you're giving it to somebody on your team, I don't care if they came up with the word at the beginning of the script, give it to somebody. And they started doing that and they became one of the most beloved leaders in the company.
“It’s a practice and I think leadership begets leadership.”

Creating an Industry That Embraces Creatives Who Don’t Want to Lead

Leadership may be something that we can learn, but Susan acknowledges that while it’s been a journey she’s loved, other talented creatives may simply not want to lead or may not have the temperament for it.
However budgetary pressures coupled with the industry’s chronic inability to advocate for the value of creativity in and of itself means that those singular creatives find they have no support or nowhere to grow outside of leadership. 
“I wish in this industry, quite frankly, that there were two paths to having an excellent creative career, which is I think that there are a lot of very interesting creative people that do not exhibit any of the leadership characteristics, they want to sit in a room by themselves and just create. And that shouldn't be a problem. But I think that's a problem with the industry, that we take really interesting creative people and then tell them that they have to be a manager.”
Indeed, Susan says that when she was first entering the industry, there was space for people who were eccentric and were pure creativity machines. “I think the last 30 years forced creatives into uncomfortable spaces of leadership. And they should have a way to excel in this industry without having to do that. I personally liked the leadership part of the creative job. But I do think that we've missed some talent by forcing them to have to be great creative leaders.”
For the bold, aspiring creative leader, one way to show real generosity and commitment to creativity may well be to devote some resources and thought to how to make space for those creative non-leaders in your team.
If I were a creative leader, I probably would have a little bit of a budget that says, ‘these people are going to deliver on a different level, which is great creative, every year, and as long as they deliver that great creative product. They deserve to be in an excellent, paid, respected position in the company.’”