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Bossing It: The Benefits of Servant Leadership and Continuous Learning with Jeff McCurry


Leader and co-owner of St. John on transparency, focusing on people as individuals and the benefits of being an incredibly avid reader

Bossing It: The Benefits of Servant Leadership and Continuous Learning with Jeff McCurry

Jeff McCurry is the president and COO of Jacksonville, Florida-based full-service agency St. John, which he joined in 1997, and where he has held various positions of increasing responsibility since then. He is considered equal parts account guy, management consultant, planner and writer. The agency looks to Jeff as the “in case of emergency, break glass” guy.

In his current role, Jeff is shaping the agency for a future driven by brand experience, adaptive content, and 24/7 on-demand connectivity and is responsible for all agency services and oversight of day-to-day activity in support of client brands.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Jeff> I came to St John 25 years ago in a business development role. As happens at agencies our size, the relationships you build throughout the pitch process keep you involved as the work begins. For me that was always in strategy development but over time I was overseeing more day-to-day work on behalf of these clients. That led to becoming director of client services.

I mention that history because it is very much how “first leadership opportunities” happen in the agency business — it is an evolution over time, of being acknowledged for work you’re often already doing and as described in “First Among Equals” [by Patrick J. McKenna and David Maister] when you shift from being defined by your performance to being defined by what you can make possible for others even though you still have client work to do.

It isn’t easy to go from being a member of the team to leading the team, and I think initially I found that balance more challenging than the job itself.

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?

Jeff> I don't think you make a conscious decision necessarily about what kind of leader you want to be. You grow up in the business watching different leadership styles and making mental notes of the characteristics common in leaders you respect.

I had some strong personalities as leadership examples early in my career – and I saw positive and negative outcomes. Watching them, I learned what I thought was effective leadership — the ability to get good work out of people while being good for them as individuals. You can’t separate those two and be a good leader.

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

Jeff> We’re an agency that has always been able to enjoy what I would consider unusual tenure with key clients — Amelia Island, ACUVUE, Ford, Zaxby’s and Southeastern Grocers all are or were clients for 10 to 25 years.

When you have that kind of tenure, you build your organization around those clients. Your culture starts to be defined in some ways by those clients. So when they move on — and every client inevitably does — it's not just about replacing revenue, it's also about rethinking the organization.

So in that moment when a client leaves, you’re tempted to focus on the financial impact but you have to focus on the organizational impact and the impact it's going to have on people.

In those moments people look to you a lot like passengers look at flight attendants when there’s turbulence — “if they’re calm, then I can be calm.” Almost anyone can lead in good times, but the lesson in leading in our business is knowing what you have to be and who you have to be in that moment when things aren’t so certain.

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

Jeff> I think I’ve always been a good decision maker and I think I always wanted to lead decision-making more than I wanted to lead people, per se. I knew the importance of the first while I learned the importance of the second. And to be more truthful, while I learned to be comfortable with the second.

It’s a learning process to be in the work with people day to day and lead them, especially at an agency in which you came up through the ranks. Leading in the agency business is a bit like being player, captain and coach on a basketball team; you have to be able to be comfortable in each of those roles — willing to do anything that you ask of anyone else and being committed to other people's success and growth as your own.

It’s not a matter of “bossing” it as much as it is a matter of being “first among equals.” I frequently share that book with people who are first-time leaders. It was written from the consulting space, but it very much applies to advertising. I think it should be mandatory reading for leaders in agencies.

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?

Jeff> Losing a client is failure … it may not be in any way the fault of the agency, but it feels like failure. And a few years ago, I wanted to be prepared for the loss of a significant client whenever that day would come. We had so much of the agency built around servicing that client, I set out to plan well in advance.

One of the great things about our business is that people are willing to share and willing to help you learn, help you be a better leader. And the CEO of an agency who had been through a similar situation a few years earlier was kind enough to give me an afternoon and an evening to tell me what he did when the same situation happened and what he would do differently with the benefit of hindsight.

That helped us craft a plan that was in our back pocket for what we knew would happen someday. It was two years later, but when it happened? We were prepared.

The agency business is so predicated on other people’s decisions — a client merges or sells a division, wants a change or departs for another career opportunity. Because we don’t control as much as we’d like, I think the agency leadership is very much about scenario or contingency planning. You won’t be judged by what happens, but you will be judged by how you respond.

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?

Jeff> Two thoughts there … First, as you talk to successful agency leaders, one consistent piece of advice is when something is happening “tell your staff everything and tell them now.” Account wins, account losses, restructures, new hires, acquisitions … I have learned time and time again that the staff and you benefit from that approach. The trust that is built sustains and propels you.

And the second thought on transparency — and I'm not saying I've done this well — is about emotional transparency, to really celebrate when there's good news: a new client, a great campaign, an award, to be in front of people celebrating. While I think I grew up with a very stoic idea of leadership, I’ve learned how much people want to see leadership enjoying the work and the accomplishments, large and small.

LBB> 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?

Jeff> I think the last two years really are proof of the things I've already talked about. We won the Ruby Tuesday business in fall of 2019 and we were just about to ramp up and get started with them in 2020 when COVID hit. And the restaurant business was so immediately and drastically impacted. Beyond Ruby, it was other clients in restaurant, entertainment, education and travel categories.

I think two things helped St. John and agencies like us get through the last two years. One is, we’re built for change – we always live the ebbs and flows of business, of changing technology, of shifting expectations. Agencies are built to embrace change, hardwired with that resilience … we didn’t have to learn it.

The second is our independence. We were able to make financial decisions that perhaps not all businesses could, not focused on where we need to be next quarter, but how we and our clients get through 2020. And then 2021. The willingness to make personal and agency investments is made possible by the sense of togetherness that's found in independent, small and mid-sized agencies.

It’s more competitive than it's ever been — more providers of agency services, trends in in-sourcing and high expectations for the ability to apply experience in a wide range of emerging technologies and platforms. Demonstrating value in a very clear, precise way has never been more important. And I think the rigor of managing through the last two years has prepared us all to effectively focus on evolving our agencies over the next two to three years.

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

Jeff> I think the prerequisite for anyone in our business and especially anyone in a leadership position is continuous learning, and not just the “learning about,” but understanding new and emerging technology — why it matters and how it applies to a situation.

I'm reading a book right now called 'Work Clean' [by Dan Charnas] and it basically is about how chefs work. And the whole idea of “mise en place” in which chefs always prepare their ingredients first and the exacting nature of chefs and how kitchens are run … it’s a completely novel way to think about leading.

I’m also starting “The Power of Regret” [by Daniel Pink] and 'Remote Work Revolution' [by Tsedal Neeley]. Three very different inputs. I think that's the type of continuous learning that helps you as a leader — not just staying up with technology, that's table stakes. But learning new ways to think about things that you and others around you already think you know … that’s critical.

If you're in a creative organization, you have to think about even the everyday aspects of your job in creative ways — other people, other moments, other industries. And 'Work Clean' just happens to be the book that's sitting right in front of me as we speak that I'm reading right now.

You’ve asked several questions and a few of my answers have included my mentioning a book. I think I’m living my brand.

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St. John, Mon, 21 Feb 2022 09:03:45 GMT