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Bossing It: Driving Ambition with Dominik Tiemann


M&C Saatchi Berlin CEO Dominik shares his lessons in leadership, the importance of balance and being open minded when it comes to failures

Bossing It: Driving Ambition with Dominik Tiemann

Dominik Tiemann started out his successful career managing and directing accounts at DDB in Düsseldorf. After starting out at DDB, Dominik continued to work at stand out agencies like Wieden+Kennedy in Amsterdam and TBWA before founding M&C Saatchi in Berlin. He is currently CEO and here shares his experiences in leadership and lessons learnt along the way.

What was your first experience of leadership?

Dominik> I was five when I kicked a football through the window glass of our neighbour’s Summer house. I immediately ran away from the crime scene of course but confessed to my mom later that evening. My mom then told my dad who took me by the hand to go see the neighbour. He made me explain what had happened and apologise, before paying for the damage. I learned from this event that leadership sometimes means to make people understand they have to take responsibility for their actions - but that it is also equally important to watch their back.

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

Dominik> I never liked people who impart pressure on others in stressful situations without contributing anything to the solution themselves. Of course, it’s important to delegate tasks but you can’t just put pressure onto the next person in the food chain. Because they’ll start to do the same. Guess who has to get the job done at the end? Exactly, the last person in the food chain. It certainly won’t be a team effort with a great outcome.

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

Dominik> Very early in my career I worked as an assistant to a photographer. Everything was analogue back then. You couldn’t take 10 pictures with your iPhone and see the result immediately because the iPhone didn’t exist. You used Polaroid instead. Once you knew what and how you wanted to shoot a set you took a Polaroid test shot to check lighting, exposure time etc. Problem was, I had forgotten to bring the damn Polaroids. The photographer was experienced and confident enough to not freak out about getting the job done without a safety net. Though, he asked me one simple question: “is it my job to sort out the Polaroids?” It was a great lesson in leadership because he made me remember what I was accountable for and that my contribution, even as an assistant, had an impact on every production.


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?

Dominik> I never really proactively planned to take on a leadership role. If I’d become a writer working all by myself, I would have been totally fine without working in a team. My ambitions were always rather task driven than by wanting to lead teams. Only when I saw later in my career that teams were in a state of flow, working happily, that I realised I probably wasn’t doing everything wrong. 

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?

Dominik> I guess, without the right mind set you won’t learn a single lesson, or at least you won’t be able to apply the stuff you’ve learned in an authentic manner. You have to have an open mind to always learn from failures and successes. And it certainly helps to read, listen and observe what other people do. But then you have to assemble your own tool box and adapt the tools so that they fit your personality. 

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

Dominik> Generally, I feel better if people are pleased with my decisions. But then you can’t always please everybody. I strongly believe that if you have to make unpopular decisions you have to mean it. You have to be able to explain why you decided that way and why you want people to support your decision even if they don’t like it. I guess, maintaining one’s integrity is what can be challenging at times.

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

Dominik> Many times, I’m afraid. I suppose mostly when it comes to communication. I tend to keep things to myself for too long. Hence people can feel disconnected. The disconnection part becomes the biggest issue because it can affect culture negatively. 

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?

Dominik> Sometimes you can’t be totally transparent in public, even when that’s what people expect. You can’t always give away every piece of information. Some things might be confidential or related to staff member’s personal matters. Thus, you sometimes have to be more careful and considered. ‘If it really matters, do it face to face’, that’s one of the rules I believe in. In a face to face meeting it’s easier to level the information.

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?

Dominik> I suppose most of my leadership ‘hacks’ I picked up at Wieden+Kennedy. We all picked up all sorts of quotes or rules of conduct from Dan. Often not even personally but from hearsay too. Like “Shut up when someone’s talking”, “Fail harder” or “No sharp stuff”. Some of these rules were quirky and probably got adapted while being passed on ☺.

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

Dominik> The brutally honest and self-critical answer is: not well enough. Sometimes I still confuse the lack of personal contact with a lack of control. I know that the success of the business is not dependent on control but on an atmosphere in which people want to give their best and are willing to go the extra mile. Thus, the focus should be on fostering an atmosphere of fun, relentless candour and respect for the people and the work. Everything’s easy when you’re having fun. 

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?

Dominik> At the risk of sounding narcissistic: I had the pleasure of working in and heading up agencies which not only preached about an open global mind set, a diverse talent base and equal opportunities but which practiced all of it. Working with people from diverse social identities, such as gender, age, culture, nationality, ethnicity, physical abilities, political and religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or other attributes has been a constant source of inspiration for myself. However, it is important to constantly remind oneself and others to involve, accept, and value all people in the workplace regardless of their differences and social identity.

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?

Dominik>The culture and identity of an agency is extremely important. And yes, keeping everyone’s spirit up while working remotely was and still is challenging. I’m not just talking about the technical requirements here either. I suppose we all got these sorted out pretty early on. I’m talking about the chitchat while waiting for the coffee to run through. About the misconceptions which wouldn’t even occur if we had talked face to face or which could easily be solved if a compassionate slap on the back was possible. About creating outstanding work in teams by passing ideas to one another. It’s great that we all learned to take the most out of video calls. But the medium clearly has its emotional limitations.  


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

Dominik> Definitely my colleagues and business partners. Especially the ones who tell me when I’m full of shit.  

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M&C Saatchi Berlin, Mon, 28 Jun 2021 08:10:46 GMT