To retain, empower and – crucially – trust their future leaders, agencies must rethink how they nurture and develop mid-level talent. 

At a recent conference for agency CEOs and founders, I asked the audience to raise their hands if they’d been on a call in the last week where they’d thought ‘I shouldn’t need to be on this’. Almost everyone’s hand went up.  

This is no surprise – agency leaders often feel ‘stuck in the weeds’; whether they’re too beholden to the whims of clients or simply struggling to elevate themselves beyond the warm reassurance of being a practitioner.

So being dragged into the day-to-day is nothing new. But in recent times, a new reason has emerged: a lack of trust in your mid-level leaders. Your confidence in the so-called ‘B-Suite’ is not in a good place. 

Clearly that’s not good for business. 

Exhausted and considering an exit 

Recent research from CEO World offered some pretty sobering stats on this issue. For one, the B-Suite are close to burnout. 60% feel ‘used up’ every day, whilst 71% feel overworked, 69% are stressed and 54% feel unsupported. 

At the same time, only 50% of mid-level leaders feel confident to lead and 37% don’t want to stay in management. No wonder 62% of CEOs don’t believe that their mid-level leaders are good enough.

Although this research isn’t specific to agencies, with our propensity to over-service and give thinking away for free, I fear the situation in our space may be even worse. 

So what’s going on here?

Failing future leaders

To be fair to the B-Suite, they’ve been dealt a pretty poor hand. Firstly, margin-poor agencies have tended to reward star performers with promotions over pay rises, so although talented, new leaders simply have fewer miles on the clock. Those same companies have also offered less training than was the norm in past decades.

Then there’s the pandemic and remote work. Like new entrants to the industry, mid-level leaders have also been deprived of two years of osmotic learning – listening to their elders go about their business; gaining knowledge, checking their assumptions and, crucially, building confidence.

Given how much we all took that learning for granted when we were wet behind the ears, it’s almost impossible for us to assess the impact of its absence.

And as if all that wasn’t enough of a hurdle, the B-Suite now have to lead their teams through the unique constraints of hybrid working, with welcome but unprecedented societal change accelerating all around them.

No wonder the most common issue they bring to our coaching and mentoring is Imposter Syndrome. One minute they’re one of the gang, next they’re in charge of their mates – who warily view them as the ‘chosen ones’ and stop inviting them to the pub. That’s no fun for anyone.

Beware the B-Suite timebomb

All this has created a perfect storm. On one side, there are agency leaders – you’re more stretched than ever, with demanding clients, myriad roles to fill and an urgent need to transform your business model.

At the same time, your mid-level talent is a flight-risk and less ready to step-up; they’re exhausted, isolated and acutely aware of your lack of faith in them. 

This creates a double-whammy for impeding progress. Not only are you being dragged away from strategic priorities, also your ability to cascade change is seriously diminished.

The longer this gap is allowed to widen, the greater its negative impact on joy, wellbeing and commercial performance. In short, it’s a timebomb. 

So what now? 

Help your rising stars to shine

The days of free pizza and a cab home in return for an all-nighter are long-gone – especially if people aren’t in the office. 

For the best agencies, hackneyed phrases like ‘our people are our most important asset’ and ‘our team is our differentiator’ were never just lip service. But now more than ever, there needs to be an even stronger commitment to people strategy

Within that, retaining and developing future leaders has clearly become an even higher priority. It’s also become a very different challenge, with crazy wage inflation set against the backdrop of a new generation’s motivations and expectations. 

The reality is that talent is in charge. Of course that can be frustrating – demands for pay rises and ‘side-hustle time’ can make you want to pull your hair out – but this rebalancing of power is also an opportunity. 

The better you attract, retain and develop the very best young talent in our fast-changing industry, the greater your opportunity for differentiation and competitive advantage. 

Smart agencies are finding creative ways to do this. Co:definery’s own contribution is B-Suite Bootcamp – our group mentoring programme for new and future leaders.

Together, our industry can diffuse this leadership timebomb and become an attractive, supportive career choice once again – liberating you from the day-to-day and powering healthy, sustainable growth.

Image: MAU