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Bossing It: Asking the Right Questions with David Mullen


The Variable's David Mullen on surrounding yourself with people way smarter than you and clearing the barriers in their way to great ideas and execution

Bossing It: Asking the Right Questions with David Mullen

The Variable's David Mullen has spent the past 20 years focused on driving meaningful, long-term growth for global and North American B2C and B2B clients, including P&G, Nestlé, NAPA Auto Parts, Char-Broil, Electrolux and BASF, among many others. He just celebrated his 10-year anniversary with The Variable, a three-time Advertising Age Small Agency of the Year and a three-time Fast Company Best Workplaces for Innovators, where he serves as CEO and partner. In his spare time, wait… David has four daughters that range in age from 17-to-6 years old. He and his wife Julie have no spare time. 

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

David> My first crack at leadership came around the age of seven. I had no siblings, so I created an imaginary brother who only asked me questions to which I already knew the answers. It made me feel really smart because I thought leaders had to know all the answers. But my first experience leading a large account at a holding company-owned agency taught me the opposite. Leading isn’t about always knowing the answers. It’s often about asking the right questions, spurring the right explorations, surrounding yourself with people way smarter than you and clearing the barriers in their way to great ideas and execution.

LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?

David> I asked people whose leadership I admired to tell me the core beliefs guiding their behaviour. And I learned a lot about what I didn’t want to do from people whose leadership I didn’t admire. There was actually a time many years ago when I was a mid-level account person watching some “leaders” in my agency when I thought I would have to become someone I’m not to make it to leadership. I wrestled with that for a while before deciding that leadership wasn’t worth it if I couldn’t be my naturally optimistic, collaborative, build-people-up instead of tear-people-down self.

LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?

David> You learn some things about yourself when you’re leading through great times, but you learn the most about yourself and your character when you’re leading through hard times. I’ve had the opportunity to learn some big lessons through hard things, many of which were out of our team’s control, like the first few months of Covid. We stay steady in rocky times, without being dire or Pollyanna-ish. We outline clearly what we’re doing to face it and rally the team to help with strategies, ideas and execution. And we communicate often and directly about any impacts or potential impacts to our business, our clients, our financials and our plans. Your team deserves to know the truth during the 95% of the time when everything’s amazing and during the 5% of the time when we need to lock arms and face something challenging together.

LBB> Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?

David> Most of my life I didn’t think about it in terms of “I want to be in a leadership role.” I had a very healthy ambition, but I focused on wanting to be on teams of incredibly talented and kind humans creating things that we were really proud of creating. Looking back, I’ve played key roles on teams across spectrums, from playing high school sports to singing with my college show choir to cross-functional agency teams tackling big challenges with clients. But for me, it was always about the team. Somehow I ended up being elevated to leadership opportunities along the way. But it’s still always about the team and what we do together. 

LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?

David> I think research has proven that different types of personalities make for great leaders. Every charmingly charismatic person is NOT a great leader. And I know plenty of quietly methodical thinkers who draw the best out of their people. I think the best leaders, regardless of their natural personality, see leadership as an area they need to continually grow within and learn more about. It requires a lot of empathy and humility. And, while soft skills are much harder to learn and master than hard skills in my opinion, they can indeed be learned. 

LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?

David> Sometimes people make assumptions that are wildly inaccurate about you or your motive for making a decision. It’s harder to address that with people outside of your company because you often don’t have an actual dialogue or relationship with them. I work through that with people inside our company in a couple ways. First, we are always improving our ability to communicate what we’ve decided to do and why. In the absence of information, we all create narratives in our head about why things happen, so we have to maximize information sharing. Second, even if you’re only 2% responsible for a problem, a conflict or a miscommunication, you’re still 100% responsible for your 2%. That helps me start any conversation to address a problem or conflict or miscommunication by first owning my part, whether it’s 2% or 95%.

LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?

David> You can’t gain trust without being open and transparent when you can be, so we try to be transparent about 90% of things. That way, our people can trust that we have good reason to be more guarded about the other 10%. If there is no good reason NOT to share something, we share it. 

LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?

David> I’ve learned lots of great things from a lot of great people. But the two I quote—either to myself or out loud—the most are Steve Beck and Brian Hahne. Steve is a long-time friend and teamwork specialist who has guided me through many professional and personal challenges over a good beer. And Brian is a long-time friend and CEO of Greensboro Urban Ministry who has done the same. I learned about accountability from Steve. And I learned to be “curious before furious” from Brian. I spend most of my time mentoring our team at The Variable, but almost always say yes whenever someone reaches out and asks for time. 

LBB> It's been a really challenging couple of years - and that's an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?

David> It has been a challenging year, but the challenge has looked a little different for us. We grew 31% year-over-year in 2022 on top of 22% YOY growth in 2021. And this year is on track to be another amazing year of growth. Our focus has been on building new systems to manage the growth excellently, attracting and retaining the very best talent to support our clients and building new strategies against our vision to ensure we expand our capabilities and expertise so we can continue helping clients navigate an increasingly complex world in the future. 

LBB> This year has seen the industry confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?

David> We’ve put a lot of intentional effort and budget behind this important work for more than three years now. For example, we formed The Variable Vanguard, an internal DEI board, to help drive our priorities, programs, funding, transparency and leadership accountability. It’s led by a team of people from various departments and levels of seniority who are paid additionally for their work on the board. The Vanguard has helped set our corporate DEI strategy and helped create and implement a number of programs and initiatives both internally and in our community. We recently hired our first internal recruiter, who is focused on building relationships with candidates from non-traditional career backgrounds and with candidates from underrepresented backgrounds, both to increase interest in advertising as a career and diversity at The Variable. We’ve worked with Winston-Salem State University, an amazing HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) in our city, for the past two years to introduce students to advertising, develop an internship partnership program and participate in alumni events. And that’s just a few of the many things.

To be honest, we’ve increased diversity in some important ways, but we haven’t made the progress that we’d hoped to. Still, we’re committed to the work and what it requires—budget, resources, learning and more. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it will drive our overall success and help us accomplish our vision.

LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely in 2020?

David> We won’t continue being successful without further cultivating a culture that inspires incredibly talented people to join The Variable and stay for the long term. We’re very intentional about being a place where people can flourish. That drives how we develop and expand our benefits, how we structure equitable compensation, how we support our people and how we empower them to engage honestly and fully. After a recent storytelling event we do every other month called The Variable Vignettes, one of our teammates sent this out:

“Right now, I think a lot of organisations are curious about how to be an honest-to-goodness best place to work, and I think they are falling short because they get engagement and culture confused. A lot of companies are trying too hard to simply create opportunities for engagement with their employees, and that’s not the same as creating a culture. Culture is when people are willing to show up at those engagements and bravely give it their all. Culture doesn’t happen without real vulnerability, real honesty and real stories. The Variable has created a space where people show up as their true selves unlike anywhere I’ve worked before.” 

LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?

David> Surround yourself with people who care enough about the vision and you to tell you the truth kindly. People who challenge and expand your thinking and perspective in pursuit of the larger goal. I also make time for content that does the same and I highly recommend everyone do it. Skim a news channel you normally wouldn’t. Listen to a genre of music you normally wouldn’t. Take in some art that you normally wouldn’t. Go out of your way to hear the stories of people you normally wouldn’t talk to. Getting comfortable with different perspectives and experiences is a hard and beautiful thing that will make you a better human and a better leader.

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The Variable, Thu, 16 Feb 2023 10:15:00 GMT