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Chris Hirst: “We need more better leaders everywhere”

Most leaders aren’t the people we usually think about when we hear that word: most aren’t CEOs, Generals or Presidents. Anybody who has people they are responsible for is a leader — and in our de-centralized, fast-moving world we need to help as many of these people as possible to fulfill their potential because we […]

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Most leaders aren’t the people we usually think about when we hear that word: most aren’t CEOs, Generals or Presidents. Anybody who has people they are responsible for is a leader — and in our de-centralized, fast-moving world we need to help as many of these people as possible to fulfill their potential because we need better leaders everywhere from our hospitals and schools to governments and international corporations.

That leadership is some exalted state open only to a chosen elite is one of the greatest fallacies about the subject. It has the effect of inhibiting those already in leadership positions from fulfilling their potential. And worse, excludes huge sections of our societies form every thinking leadership is something they could aspire to.


As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Hirst.

Chris has been widely recognized as a change agent in the UK. Having been appointed to Global CEO of Havas Creative in January 2019, he is now poised to bring his unique approach of leadership to the marketing services group and make waves in the U.S. and beyond. In this role, Chris’ goal is to heighten Havas’ creative reputation and operations, as well as strengthen the group’s “global village model” and forge more integration with parent company Vivendi and its entities like Universal Music, Gameloft, and more (Chris is a board member of Vivendi).

Prior, Chris served as Havas UK’s CEO & Chairman, where he was the architect of a truly integrated agency model. Before joining Havas, Chris was CEO at Grey London where under his leadership, the agency went from being a failing, “safe but dull” agency to one of the hottest creative shops in London. During his time as CEO, Grey London doubled its size, becoming the fastest-growing agency in London.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It has been a rather winding road, but I don’t think that’s necessarily so unusual.
I studied Math and Physics at high school, mostly because I found them easy, but that then rather limited my options at university. Consequently, I ended up working for a year as an apprentice in a glass factory in the industrial north of England, followed by a four-year master’s degree in Engineering Science. Which was very hard work! After those five years, the one thing I was certain of was that I neither wanted to work in a factory, nor be an engineer. I think advertising was just about as far away from both as I could imagine at the time.

Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?

I remember clearly when I first became a CEO. It was at Grey London, at the time a drab and unremarkable (to put it politely) outpost of WPP. I think the biggest challenge for any new leader, especially one taking on a significant change management role is to make those around you, and who work for you, believe that change for them is possible. It is rarely necessary to convince people that change is desirable, but after decades of stasis, nobody believed it was ever actually going to happen. I was just the latest in a long line of CEOs who talked big, but in most people’s eyes, it was also destined to fail.

The crucial insight a leader must grasp when rebuilding a broken team or organization is that initially, the direction of travel matters less than the belief that change is possible. At this stage, your eventual destination is sufficiently distant to be way less important than the need to create energy and belief.

What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?

I believe any leader should have a clear leadership philosophy. There are many good answers to this question (and many bad ones); a successful leader must be clear on theirs. For a people-centric consultancy such as ours, I reasoned that we were simply a building full of people. Just as all our competitors were –whether good and bad. What then was the difference: we had no IP, no factories, no tangible products or brands of our own. All we were was a building with people in it.

The difference between great, good and bad was simply talent and culture. Have more than your fair share of the best people and create an organizational culture that allows your teams to out-perform.
Leadership is difficult, but not complicated.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.

(i) We need more better leaders everywhere

Most leaders aren’t the people we usually think about when we hear that word: most aren’t CEOs, Generals or Presidents. Anybody who has people they are responsible for is a leader — and in our de-centralized, fast-moving world we need to help as many of these people as possible to fulfill their potential because we need better leaders everywhere from our hospitals and schools to governments and international corporations.

That leadership is some exalted state open only to a chosen elite is one of the greatest fallacies about the subject. It has the effect of inhibiting those already in leadership positions from fulfilling their potential. And worse, excludes huge sections of our societies form every thinking leadership is something they could aspire to.

(ii) Leadership is about getting stuff done

You can have the world’s most brilliant strategy, but as Drucker said, ‘ultimately all strategy devolves into work’. Many leaders fail because they become convinced that ‘missions’, ‘visions’, strategies and purpose are the defining tasks for a leader. So much so that many leaders never get beyond this stage. But they aren’t. They are important, but they aren’t leadership. Leadership is about action. Without action, there can be no leadership.

(iii) To decide is to act

Many leaders fail through poor or ineffective decision-making. Great leaders are effective decision-makers. People often delay or avoid decisions because they fear getting them ‘wrong’ and in the hope that at some future point fresh information will arrive to help ease their choice. This can have a disastrous effect on your ability to create action. In fact, leaders must reframe their thinking from ‘fear of getting decisions wrong’ to ‘fear of not making decisions quickly enough’. A good guide is Colin Powell’s’ 40/70 rule: ‘Don’t take action if you have only enough information to give you a less than 40% chance of being right, but if you have waited until you’re more than 70% certain then you have waited too long.’

(iv) An effective Culture is a Super-Power

All organizations have a culture, whether they are consciously aware of it or not. A great team must have a great culture. Organizational culture is the environment a leader creates for their team to out-perform. This is the ultimate achievement for a leader. The best and surest way to success is your own behavior: Culture is the behavior of the leader.

(v) Lead yourself

Leadership can be tough, lonely, insecure, disorientating, and remorseless — as well, of course, as the opposite to each. It is like hill-climbing: hard-work but exhilarating. But like hill-climbing to scale the highest heights, you must ensure you look after yourself and your team along the way. Live a whole life — leadership is only one part of who you are: we are all bosses, employees, parents, children, partners, winners and losers in different parts of our lives. Often all at the same time. Imagine your life like the counter in a game of trivial pursuit — you can only succeed by filling out each segment with a different color. Find balance.

What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

An effective leader must also, at times, be a selfish leader. To be effective she must take as much care of herself as she does others. In doing this she also leads by example — demonstrating to her team that looking after themselves, physically and emotionally, is an important part of their success.
A leader must also accept the inevitability of self-doubt: I’m Chris Hirst, I’m an insecure leader. And be prepared to be vulnerable. It is not a sign of weakness, but a proof of strength.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Sir Clive Woodward is a great inspiration for me. Clive was the coach of the England rugby team when they won the World Cup and then Director of Sport for Team GB at the London Olympics — winning a record medal haul. Clive is a master at building effective team cultures. He tells a story of how he inverted the conventional way teams typically deal with success and failure. When the rugby team lost, rather than drag everybody in the following morning for a post-mortem of what went wrong, they would instead go to the pub and shrug it off. When they won, instead of celebrating wildly with Champaign, they were in early the following morning analyzing what went right.
It’s a neat trick and one that reinforces positive behaviors and team culture.

What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?

I want to build Havas into the world’s best creative agency network. We aren’t there yet, but we are well on the way. I want to write and publish a great novel (and then perhaps more than one). I want to follow-up my bestseller ‘No Bullshit Leadership’ with book number two…! And I’d like to spend more time in the mountains, walking windswept cliffs by the sea — and drinking fabulous beer in low-ceilinged warm pubs.

What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?

I’d like to be good for the careers of the people who work for me

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s

lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

I am saddened and worried by want appears to be a growing intolerance in society to people who don’t share precisely our own views and values. Social media is the worst example, but it seems to be permeating all aspects of our daily lives. The consequences, I believe, are dire for our societies and communities as they atomize into smaller, angrier pieces.
I would like to lead a movement that doesn’t just accept that people have a multitude of equally valid, passionately held opinions, but encourages us all to see embracing this fact is a necessary and healthy part of a vibrant, modern, confident and tolerant society.

And get everybody to wash their hands!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn

Twitter: @chrishirst

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