During my time at Leo Burnett, I crossed paths with a smart, grizzled, and jaded Creative Director who I’d often lean on for advice. He’d been at Leo for more than two decades. Which, if you know agency life, is simply remarkable. During a happy hour at Catch 32, I asked him how he’d been able to survive for so long? When I say survive, keep in mind agencies are notorious for mass layoffs after they lose an account, being incredibly fickle with creative staff, and often listen to clients about personnel decisions. So, yeah, survive. He offered me two pieces of advice that explained his ability to survive.
The first was there are only two types of decisions you make. There are career-limiting decisions and there are ones that aren’t. Sure, there are decisions could that could be career accelerating, but simply put, you either make decisions that limit your career or you make ones that don’t. There are no guarantees that you can make a decision that will advance your career, but there are very clear decisions you can make that limit your career. He always chose the decisions that were guaranteed to not limit his career. Push back on the client? Nope. Take a cab with a Jr. female staffer after hours? Nope. Ask an honest and hard question at a town hall? Not going to happen. The list goes on and on. He focused on simply avoiding the career-limiting decisions, even at the expense of his potential career growth. While he didn’t grow as fast as his peers, he was also never without a job.
The second was to avoid gossip and be judicious in who you trust. Gossip, as I’ve written about before is one of the worst things that can happen in an organization. Like a virus, it infects companies, culture, teams, and people. He explained that he never peddled gossip and he never listened to gossip. The idea of a “circle of trust” isn’t new. It’s been made into some memorable movie moments. However, I don’t think he even considered the idea of a circle. That seemed even too big and inclusive. He more favored the idea that trusting people is playing with fire and eventually you will always get burned. I remember saying something like, but isn’t that a lonely way to go about things? And, as if the conversation was happening right now, I remember his answer, “Adam, there are two types of decisions you can make, career-limiting decisions and ones that aren’t.”
This was in 2003. He’s still there.