As President and Managing Partner of Goodby Silverstein & Partners, Derek Robson has experienced the direct benefits that a service approach to leadership can have on both creativity and the bottom line.
In this issue of the Wider View, Derek shares how increasing representation at the highest levels of the agency, as well as really digging into DE&I efforts, have helped keep Goodby Silverstein & Partners at the top of their game.
Finish this sentence: I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for ________________.
My parents, who ignored the advice of almost everyone that we spoke to who said I wouldn’t get a job in advertising and encouraged me anyway.
Then, the folks at O&M Direct who were prepared to bet on a person who didn’t have a formal degree and overlooked the fact that I looked like a twelve-year old at the interview. So, to those people I express gratitude that can’t be calculated.
And then all the people over the years that spent time to teach me: They are some of the best people in UK and US advertising. If I list them, then invariably I’ll miss someone out and that would be upsetting.
Resumes highlight professional and educational achievements. Which one of your life or personal experiences deserves to be on your resume?
I worked in the ladies underwear section of a department store in the UK called British Home Stores (BHS). You’re probably wondering why a seventeen-year old boy was given the job in the first place. I have often wondered that myself, but it taught me some incredible life lessons. No conversation I have ever had has been as uncomfortable as those that I had about intimate ladies apparel. It quickly taught me to get over my embarrassment and to deal with people in an honest and straightforward way. That’s served me well ever since.
What qualities do you look for when hiring someone on your team? What qualities do you avoid?
I look for what my father describes as the three “E’s”: energy, effort and enthusiasm. These are the qualities that help you in a team setting and they’re incredibly important when you’re under pressure to meet what are increasingly more pressurized deadlines.
Then I look for someone who has an innate curiosity. Curiosity powers creativity and I have observed that the best people I have worked with have curious minds. Curiosity helps you to look at problems in new ways and it also allows you to make connections that help to unlock potential solutions.
I learned a lot from the change that we made at the top of the company when we changed from an all-male partner group to a 50/50 male/female partner group. That simple change unlocked not just the financial potential of representation … but also the creativity improved dramatically too and our employees thought the company was a better place to work.”
What’s one piece of career advice you wish you could give to your younger self?
Early on: I think I spent far too long worrying about how fast I was progressing and ultimately a career is a marathon, maybe even an ultra-marathon, not a sprint.
Later on: The best way to lead is to serve other people. Take your ego out of it and genuinely look after other people. If you do that, then they’ll look after you. It took me a long time to learn this.
Which books, podcasts, or new sources do you think everyone should read? Why?
Books: My friend Glenn Singleton’s Courageous Conversations books are excellent (there are two of them – Courageous Conversations about Race and MORE Courageous Conversations about Race). I am also partial to most things written by Malcolm Gladwell; Talking to Strangers is an interesting read.
Podcasts: Pivot with Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway is an excellent look into business and culture and they’re both pretty skeptical about advertising, which I like. My friend Matt Dixon (who is a trainer of world-class triathletes) has a podcast called the Purple Patch Podcast. It’s interesting because you realize so much of coaching an athlete is analogous to business. He has great guests and I often find myself making connections to how to make my leadership more effective.
News: The Guardian (for UK news) and The New York Times (for US news) and The New Yorker Magazine for everything else.
Diversity, equity and inclusion is front and center right now. How do you express your commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in your personal and professional life?
With time and with money and with action: Nothing can be achieved without these elements in play. I was drawn to the work by the brutal honesty of my two daughters who expressed concern that I was running a company with little or no real commitment to diversity. That was hard to hear but it was borne out in the basic facts. I then met Glenn Singleton who helped me (and the agency) to really examine race and how it plays out in our culture and in our work. He really changed my life because he forced me to examine how little I really knew. It was humbling.
What’s one tangible step every employer should take to help build a more representative organization?
I learned a lot from the change that we made at the top of the company when we changed from an all-male partner group to a 50/50 male/female partner group. That simple change unlocked not just the financial potential of representation (our business prospered financially with new leadership) but also the creativity improved dramatically too and our employees thought the company was a better place to work. However, there’s still so much work to do. We need more diversity at all levels of the company.
I think you also have to recognize and understand that this is an uncomfortable journey that will probably never be ever completed, at least in my lifetime at the agency. The analogy I like to use is that it’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, once you’ve finished you have to start back at the beginning again.
I also think that our culture is always evolving and changing and that a more representative organization has led us to produce better work and to perform better as a business.