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Bossing It: Brett Bender on the Importance of Transparency and Compassion


RPA COO on putting the needs of others first and supporting their growth and development

Bossing It: Brett Bender on the Importance of Transparency and Compassion

Brett Bender joined RPA in 1993 as part of the Honda Sales Communications group and has spent his entire career at RPA. For many years, Brett oversaw all of RPA's automotive business, including Honda National, Regional, Corporate, Collateral, Social and Digital Account Management. Today, as Chief Operating Officer, Brett is responsible for the holistic service offerings and day-to-day operations of the agency's business. In the past, he mentored aspiring advertising executives, guest-lecturing Account Management classes for both thinkLA and the AAAA’s Institute for Advanced Advertising Studies, where he also served as a judge for their annual competition.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Brett> My first experience with leadership was when I graduated from college and was working at a youth hostel in Greece. I started out as part of the security team and after a month became the head of security. There wasn’t any formal training for the position, which left me guessing and reacting all the time. I really learned at that early stage how important it is to set goals and expectations for your team members, making sure that someone gets the proper training when they are promoted, not just expecting them to know how to do it because they were good at the position they held before being promoted.

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?

Brett> A lot of it comes from the experience of having leaders that I admired, taking what I learned from them, and then adding my own intuition as to what felt right for my own personal leadership style. Early in my career I had a client that I would go to meetings with and observe how she interacted with other client team members that reported to her. She was always very respectful, even if she didn’t agree with the feedback they were giving, particularly if it was too prescriptive. She’d let them express their point of view and then would artfully steer the conversation towards the direction of the feedback that ultimately provided to be the most useful for the project. She would often say, “Let’s let them know what we’re struggling with (or trying to accomplish) and let them figure out the solution to get the work there.”

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

Brett> Losing a key piece of business and having to tell a large group of associates what had happened, knowing many of them would be impacted by the loss. It’s hard to prepare for something of that magnitude, but delivering the news with transparency and compassion was appreciated, and the feedback I received has stuck with me throughout my career.

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?

Brett> I definitely had career goals and aspirations that could not be accomplished without being in a leadership position. I made concerted efforts to be in the right position when a growth opportunity became available, and at each level took what I learned and observed along the way and tried to apply it to that role in an effort to continue my upward trajectory.

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?

Brett> I believe it’s absolutely a combination of the two, and what percentage of natural vs. taught and learned is unique to each individual. Someone who has an Alpha personality probably tends to see themselves as a natural leader, but it doesn’t always mean they will be a great leader. Great leaders shine the light on others and help them grow into leaders. They encourage questioning and curiosity and are okay with not being the smartest person in the room. They tend to be great listeners and observers. For some people those traits come naturally, but they can also be honed over time when taught and practiced.

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

Brett> We practice the art of servant leadership (putting the needs of others first and supporting their growth and development) here at the agency. We like to empower our Associates, set expectations, and let them deliver results. There are times when we need to hold them accountable for not meeting those expectations. Making sure it’s done in a way that still inspires them to grow and develop but addresses the shortcomings can be a difficult needle to thread at times, particularly when the person has demonstrated mostly good judgement and decision-making in the past. The other difficult aspect is balancing my own work/life boundaries. I want to be available at all times to give guidance and support, but self-care as a leader is important as well, so you can be at your best when you are engaged.

LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?

Brett> Nobody is perfect (I hope my wife isn’t reading this), and I often say never let a good crisis go to waste. If I keep those two perspectives in mind, I can live with a certain degree of failure. Everything is a learning opportunity, whether it is something that happened that’s within my control or outside of it, but I’m still accountable for it. Experience and instinct help avoid certain failures and pitfalls; others come out of the blue and need to be responded to accordingly. Taking responsibility is step one, and each situation’s resolution is typically unique from there.

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?

Brett> In my opinion, transparency = trust. Without trust you will have a very difficult time having people buy into you as a leader. There are times when you simply must be careful and considered, but as a general rule of thumb, the more transparent the better.

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?

Brett> I have been fortunate to have many mentors in my career: one of the founders of our Agency, both of our current Owners, our CEO, our Chief Creative Officer, our Chief Production Officer, and our longstanding Head of Human Resources, just to name a few. Each of them unique in their own way, style, and manner, but I’ve learned so much from decades of working with them, and they’ve all shaped the way I view my role and who I am. 

I actively participate in our Agency Mentorship program and informally mentor other individuals as well. I believe in giving back as much if not more than I was given in terms of guidance and support. Seeing growth from within the Agency is one of the most rewarding aspects of my position. Whatever I can do to support an individual with their career and life aspirations, I’m there for it. Each individual is unique, so my approach tends to adjust depending on what the Associate is hoping to get out of mentorship.

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?

Brett> Understatement is an appropriate word. Our Agency has gone through some difficult times this year, and we continue to be as transparent and considerate as we can as we have to make hard decisions. Leaders are measured often on how they perform during difficult times more than they are measured during rosier times. I continue to try to be true to who I am and my core beliefs, and when people see the transparency and honesty, they tend to appreciate it even when the subject matter is difficult. At the end of the day, it comes down to being a good human being and doing the right thing.

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?

Brett> There was a lot of momentum to support DEI efforts back in 2020, from our industry and others as well. I think some businesses may have pivoted to what they consider other priorities. We have not slowed down our efforts at all and continue to pursue a goal of having our student body match or over-index against the general demographic makeup. Recruiting and retention efforts have been encouraging, but we’re far from done.

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?

Brett> Our People First culture is the hallmark of how we treat our Associates. It’s not just a catchy phrase, but truly how we look at our Associates, as People first and foremost. It starts with being respectful and working through the philosophy of Team success leads to Individual success. It was a different opportunity to promote People First pre-Covid —  lots of fun events and learning opportunities coupled with training and mentoring, often through osmosis. Now we have to be more deliberate with sustaining our culture. Fewer impromptu gatherings and more scheduled/coordinated events. We’ve also built a strong grouping of ERGs and Training opportunities to support our Associates and always continue the mantra of being respectful and working as a team.

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

Brett> Our People Department does an amazing job of making training and learning seminars an available asset to our Associates. Leadership courses help refine the skill and provide wonderful tips and tools to help leaders grow at all levels. Fellow leaders are a great resource as well, observe and learn from them and apply where it makes sense.

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RPA, Tue, 08 Aug 2023 06:17:00 GMT