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5 Things You Need to Know to Successfully Manage a Team, With Sharon Napier, the CEO of Partners + Napier

Lead by example. I’ve never been a believer in work-life balance, but rather work-life integration, and I’ve tried to instill that in…


Lead by example. I’ve never been a believer in work-life balance, but rather work-life integration, and I’ve tried to instill that in others. When my daughters were growing up, I made it known that they were my priority, always checking in with them after school, always attending their basketball games. That may have meant talking on my cell phone with a client right up until the opening tip-off, when my daughters had my full attention. Sure, I often worked late after they went to bed, and I sometimes practiced new business pitches with them as my audience, but my priorities have always been clear. I hope I’ve instilled that same commitment to family with others at the agency.


I had the pleasure to interview Sharon Napier, the CEO of Partners + Napier

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I’m a born entrepreneur, inspired by my first-generation, Italian immigrant parents who started a successful hair care products company in Buffalo, New York. As the youngest of five children, my fierce competitive streak was fired up by my sisters on the basketball court when we were kids, and my loud voice by my determination to make myself heard around our always boisterous dinner table.

My bachelor’s degree was in social work, but early on I was asked to work on a political campaign. Successfully marketing that candidate had me hooked on a career in the ad biz. By my mid-30s, I was the president of two of the five offices that comprised the Wolf Group, but I had bigger dreams. So I went back to school at 43 to get my Master’s, while continuing at my day job and raising two young daughters alongside an incredibly supportive husband. With my second degree in hand, we mortgaged our lives, bought out the Wolf Group and opened Partners + Napier with 40 other brave souls in 2004. Now we’re focused on leaving a mark on people, business and culture for a mix of leading national advertisers and challenger brands. Earlier this year, we were stoked to be named the 15th Most Effective Agency in North America by Effie Worldwide.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Starting your own business takes guts. And really hard work. Here I was, wanting to launch my own agency at a time when there were precious few female CEOs in the ad business. No question I had my own self-doubts, but I also had the support of the “Brave 40” — truly incredible colleagues who pooled their money to buy the “Partners + Napier” sign that still hangs above the entrance to our Rochester HQ. That sign means the world to me. As does our name. Notice that “Partners” comes first. We’re all about forging real and lasting partnerships with our clients, and between ourselves. We make each other better and we have each other’s backs — and that is both reassuring and exhilarating.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was all of 28 and in charge of getting three carousels of slides that were meant to be the focus of a really nifty (for the time) multi-media presentation to our Kodak Professional Film client. In a rush to the big meeting, my arm caught on the revolving door into the building and the carousels went crashing to the floor. Slides scattered everywhere. I frantically started putting the presentation back together. Not very well it turns out. During the actual presentation, some images were upside down. Some sideways. Others out of order. I was mortified. We subsequently lost the business, but I like to think it was due to other factors and not my klutziness.

Lesson learned: Always arrive early to important meetings (even the not-so-important ones). Take the time to collect yourself beforehand. Get your proverbial ducks in a row. Haste can make a meeting go way, way South way too fast. And thank God for PowerPoint.

How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?

Like a great NCAA Championship team, know your role and everyone else’s. Set a clear vision and motivate your people to win. Communicate up and down the court. Early and often. Building truly stellar teams starts with recruiting great people, and trusting them to play their position, while inspiring them to tap into something greater than themselves.

What is the top challenge when managing global teams in different geographical locations? Can you give an example or story?

In 2011, I negotiated the sale of Partners + Napier to Project Worldwide, which is now a network of 14 independent, yet interdependent agencies with more than 2,200 people spanning 46 locations around the world — all united in service of creativity. A motivating factor to join Project was providing our clients a global footprint, and to become a resource for foreign clients needing help in the U.S. I’m one of the founding members of Project’s Strategic Leadership Team; we help formulate policies across the network and evaluate M&A opportunities — we look for like-minded companies with shared values whose talent and skills will augment our own.

Having partnered with a fellow Project agency on work for a major Chinese advertiser, it’s important to respect cultural differences. The American way is not the only way. And due to language barriers, it’s important to listen, really listen, and make sure there is clear understanding on both sides. When you add in the challenge of radically different time zones, it’s critical to keep a project moving forward so that work can literally continue while we sleep, and vice versa. The Chinese have an incredibly strong work ethic and set high bars. There can be no ball dropping at our end.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Hire people who are better and smarter than you. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be insecure. Be humble. Ask questions. Learn from them. Set the vision, then get out of their way and let them thrive. And when they stumble, as any risk-taker worth their salt inevitably will, don’t beat them down. Help them learn from the mistake and be all the better for it.

Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on retaining talent today?

It starts with the culture — and recognizing that people not only work for a company with a set of core values, they work within a team that establishes their own set of values, ideally in line with the mother ship. One of our core values at Partners + Napier is, in fact, “Team.” To deliver on that, we need to articulate a clear vision and define shared goals. And that begins with the recruiting process — we need to make sure it’s a good fit on both sides.

We also need to remember that everyone is not motivated by the same things. Some are motivated by power, others by money or responsibility or job flexibility. So it’s really important to just be human. That means being in touch with what makes each individual tick, and caring about the “whole person” — not just the one who shows up at the office. Remember the Golden Rule — treat people the way you’d like to be treated. It’s a simple philosophy that goes a long way when it comes to retaining talent.

Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, ideally an example from your experience)

– Hire adults. One of the best examples of that is Courtney Cotrupe, who was all of 26 when I hired her. Wise beyond her years, she quickly proved she had what it took to inspire and to lead. Now less than 15 years later, she’s the president of Partners + Napier, and we have a reverse-mentor relationship. I challenge her, no question. She challenges me more, no doubt. And we’re stronger leaders because of it.

– Set expectations and hold people accountable. Our clients expect a measurable return on their marketing investments. We expect no less from ourselves. That’s why we set clear goals for all team members and regularly evaluate progress in achieving them. If there’s a problem, we address it with the individual and help them move the ball forward. No floundering allowed.

– Lead by example. I’ve never been a believer in work-life balance, but rather work-life integration, and I’ve tried to instill that in others. When my daughters were growing up, I made it known that they were my priority, always checking in with them after school, always attending their basketball games. That may have meant talking on my cell phone with a client right up until the opening tip-off, when my daughters had my full attention. Sure, I often worked late after they went to bed, and I sometimes practiced new business pitches with them as my audience, but my priorities have always been clear. I hope I’ve instilled that same commitment to family with others at the agency.

– Provide radical candor. I’m a big believer in Kim Scott’s approach when it comes to honing your ability to challenge people directly while showing you care for them personally.

– Celebrate! Both the big wins and the smaller or more personal stuff. We’re foodies at Partners + Napier. We mark special occasions with all kinds of food and drink and toasts and high fives. Sometimes I may just write a short, personal note of thanks. Considering the fast-paced intensity of the ad business, it’s important to stop and savor notable achievements before having to rush pall mall toward the next challenge.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-).

Equal Pay For Equal Work! (Sadly, it’s a movement that’s not really moved much.)

Back during my acquisition of The Wolf Group, I was surprised but not shocked to learn that as president and CEO of two of the group’s largest agencies, I was making a whole lot less per year than my male counterparts.

Fast forward 15 years, and while a handful of companies like Starbucks and Adobe have achieved pay parity, studies show that the gender pay gap won’t be completely closed until 2059. That’s outrageous. We need more leaders like Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, who after being admittedly shocked to learn his company was guilty of pay inequality, immediately and bravely made things right, at a cost of several million dollars.

As a women-led company, we have obviously always been committed to equal pay at Partners + Napier. There’s really no reason to not provide it. The name of my movement? Stop Making Excuses!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My dad would often say, “No one is successful on their own.” In this day and age when trust is such a big, hairy issue — trust in institutions, trust in facts, trust in business — it’s important to work with people with shared values and ambitions. And to work with people who will lift you up, not tear you down. People whom you trust. Years ago I was told that I could never lead my own agency, largely because I’m a woman. I trusted the voice inside me that said they were wrong, but just as importantly, others trusted me enough to help me achieve my dream.

Originally published at medium.com

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