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Tracey Pattani: “You don’t owe every individual an explanation”

You don’t owe every individual an explanation. Organizations always have folks that have tendencies to complain, assume negative intent, or believe that you don’t understand. Sometimes, a decision is important enough to go the extra mile and talk to individuals. But I can’t spend my time changing adversarial thinking in a few individuals. This is also […]

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You don’t owe every individual an explanation. Organizations always have folks that have tendencies to complain, assume negative intent, or believe that you don’t understand. Sometimes, a decision is important enough to go the extra mile and talk to individuals. But I can’t spend my time changing adversarial thinking in a few individuals. This is also the value of having a great leadership team, as they can help create understanding.


Asa part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tracey Pattani the CEO of Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners (BSSP). After 25 years of working with radically different companies in nearly every major ad market with teams across 84 countries, Tracey’s greatest skill has become adaptability. She brings a balanced perspective and breadth of knowledge gained from working with client partners like IBM, Unilever, Levi’s, Ghirardelli, Pandora, Eli Lilly, and PlayStation and helping them to adapt in a world of constant change and digital disruption. Her belief is that we get caught up in the tools and technologies and forget that there is still an emotional human being to understand. When we connect directly with people and have conversations, we come away understanding much more about the data, we understand the why. And that helps get to better ideas because there is clarity on the jobs to be done in your audiences’ lives. She met her husband in the industry in the late ’90s and they’ve had three children all precisely 18-months apart, which definitely speaks to her structured planning and action approach. Her husband no longer works in the ad industry and has become quite the skilled craftsman, renovating houses as a one-man crew. As a family, they are dedicated to traveling to unique places and taking their kids out of their comfort zone so they can learn new things and gain confidence in the world, one recent example was a trip to Egypt. Tracey assumed her current role as CEO of Sausalito-based advertising agency BSSP just as we entered the COVID pandemic. Her leadership style, putting relationships first, was key to a successful start in the midst of a crisis. She is also a member of the 4As Maximus Forum, a group of independent agency leaders that work together to innovate and adapt industry models to better serve clients, which is more relevant than ever in the face of workforce disruption and work model changes that have been thrust on us this year.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Incollege my academic focus was Journalism. I always liked the key components of this field; the research, finding the real backstory and truth, then turning that into tight, edited storytelling that makes people feel something or form a perspective. I just didn’t like that I’d have to start in the obituaries department. Advertising gave me a way to use these skills in the service of building brands and selling products. It’s been a rewarding career, but I worry today that we’re undeserving emotional storytelling in marketing.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading BSSP?

I started on March 2, 2020, and 8 days later I shut the office down for the COVID quarantine. The significance of what was happening to us as individuals were doubled by the significance of what was happening to us as a company. And here I was, the new CEO with all the excitement of tackling change and opportunity.

I faced these crises from a different angle — managing volatile change and uncertainty with an organization you don’t know very well.

The force of the crisis put things into perspective fast. I realized that I may be luckier than most because I could apply my values as a leader with clarity and purity. Free from biases or blind spots that sometimes come from years at an organization.

It quite simply slammed me back to the basics I believe in. We all have a broader set of values that pertain to people, relationships, creativity, and growth. But when it comes to leadership, especially in times of volatility, there are four principles that never fail.

Put the business first in every decision you make. These days this is sometimes misconstrued as not being people first. It isn’t. A healthy business employs diverse people and perspectives, creates growth for all, and helps you survive the bad times.

Be decisive and remove the emotion. This does not mean being unemotional or uncaring. It means being objective, strong, and confident. Rarely are problems simple. Often, they are so grey it can feel like throwing a dart to decide what’s your best option.

Respect and value the people around you. You only get one chance at this. In my book, this means being direct, thankful, trusting, fair, and calm. Assume people are strong, capable, and can overcome adversity until they prove you otherwise. Appreciate differences in thinking and experience.

Lastly, go hard/easy on yourself. Hold yourself accountable for everything that matters to the organization but recognizes you will make mistakes. Spend time with friends and family that remind you of life perspective. For if you lose perspective, you aren’t helpful to others.

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?

When I started at BSSP, I quickly fell into habits that had previously frustrated me in other leaders joining an organization. A sudden awareness that was similar in feeling to realizing you’ve become your mother.

In this case, my mistake was in offering solutions without understanding what the team had already considered. And worse, I referenced example materials I had from past roles. Without enough of a relationship in place, this created a perception that I didn’t trust their talents or that I thought other companies did it better. The team is extremely professional and didn’t call me out, but I caught a subtle comment or two that helped me realize the misunderstanding I had created. I shifted to asking more questions and better explaining and positioning my intentions if I shared reference materials. It was my way of processing the problem or opportunity using comparative models and “think out loud” solutions. It also made me realize why those other leaders had that same approach. The lesson I learned was to be honest about your intentions upfront and give people permission to use only what is helpful to them to identify their own answers.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO that most attracted you to it?

Over the course of my career, I have built a track record for turning around, improving, or scaling accounts that I have led. It’s challenging but rewarding work. And it’s the most exciting time to be part of a team, in it together. I saw it as a challenge to step into the role of CEO and I was eager to see how everything I’ve learned would apply to and be stretched by this new position.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO does. But in just a few words, from your POV, can you explain what a CEO does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

A CEO steers the company’s future while ensuring the health of the organization from day-to-day.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being in your current role?

Creating action. There’s an Irish proverb that says, “you’ll never plow a field by turning it over in your mind.” My biggest joy is in getting teams to act and empowering them to do it autonomously. Try new things. Learn. Adapt. It’s amazing how much an organization can accomplish when everyone creates movement in the same direction. But it must be in the same direction or it is chaos. I love the energy that grows among people and teams when we are moving forward.

What are the downsides?

Blind spots. I’m further away from the daily workings of the business and my teams, so I’m not able to “see” into the corners of how we operate. Real or imaginary blind spots can make me feel ineffective or impatient. Being a CEO takes the biggest leap of trust I have ever made. I realized that must be why some CEOs make changes to leadership early in their term so that they can bring in someone they know and trust. But that isn’t always the right answer as you lose valuable perspective and influence within your organization.

Can’t please everyone or sometimes anyone. Obviously, you must get comfortable with this as a CEO. Leadership is not easy. There are weighty issues almost daily. Many don’t have a view into how difficult and complex decision making can be as a CEO. I dream of a steady stream of simple problems with solutions that make everyone happy!

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO. Can you explain what you mean?

People think CEOs are supposed to have all the answers and a switch that rapidly activates them. You should expect your CEO to have a vision, but they don’t have all the answers for getting there and they need partners who challenge thinking to help shape direction. This is why good talent is such a precious resource. Business performance is a team sport and your talent must be great because you rely on them to bring their strategies and perspectives. As for that magical switch, let me know when you find it.

We’re a one-way street. We approach you, but we are not approachable. We give you direction, but we cannot take direction. If this were true it would isolate me from the organization and I would lose value and respect, and blind spots would grow.

We make good money that we don’t deserve and without having to do much. There are a lot of emotions around C-Suite salaries these days. I lead an independent mid-sized agency, so my salary is nowhere close to what people think of as CEO pay grade. But, more importantly, I believe a good CEO is worth the money if they deliver incremental value to a company, be it growth, innovation, disruption or maintaining a dominant position in the face of disruption. By doing this well, they create jobs. If they don’t do it well, jobs are lost. Not everyone has the ability and guts to take that responsibility on and it takes tough skin and hard work. It is a different kind of work than the hard work the organization does daily to create products and services. I spend much of my time plotting change and developing the plans to get there, ensuring our house is in operational order, rolling up my sleeves to fix where it isn’t, constant organizational problem solving, and stoking the fires of change, trying new things.

We come ready for this. We already know all we need to know. Someone once said to me that when I hit an executive leadership level, that I shouldn’t be learning big lessons anymore. Most of the learning is done. Seriously? Imagine if I had stopped learning then and there.

Maybe some folks were born to do this, but I feel like I must learn and adapt every day. To me, being a CEO is one constant lesson. In part because my job is to stay ahead and intuit people and opportunities. But also because we live in different times that require constantly evolving methods and responses. You’re bound to make mistakes or find better ways to build the plane while you are flying it at the pace of business. And digital has made everything faster and ever-changing.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

We are handed a box full of acceptable traits and styles. Men are given more room to be who they are — arrogant or quiet, rough, or polished, intense, or calculating. We automatically adapt to them. Whereas women are expected to “dial-in” certain traits to adapt to others. Perhaps this is just an exploitation of our nurturing qualities. A good nurturer means developing others, so we should put others’ needs and traits first, right? It gets to feeling like a goldilocks syndrome — you’re too emotional or not emotional enough. You’re too self-promoting or too behind the scenes. You’re too harsh or too forgiving. Every leader should have some self-awareness and be able to adapt using their best traits and styles to get the best out of the people around them. That should not vary by race or gender.

Our gender alone becomes the defining factor. This works both ways. An organization celebrates having a female leader, before even evaluating whether she is a GOOD leader. Or, you are assumed to have the job because they needed to put a woman in for optics, rather than because you are good at what you do. And you are assigned a set of assumptions for how you lead, simply based on being a woman. I believe my traits have been shaped by who I am, but also by the people who I have worked with and for, men and women alike. So, I’m just like everyone else in that I am a product of my experiences.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

Extreme multitasking. I’m amazed at the spectrum of needs that require my attention on a weekly basis. It’s quite literally every aspect of the company. Its problem solving on speed. I might be outlining service expansion in the morning, being an ear to a client about future-proofing their business model at lunch, prepping for a new business meeting in the afternoon, reviewing our back to work task force plans at the end of the day and, at night, reflecting on and outlining the right things to do to ensure our company culture attracts all kinds of talent. It works different muscles — asking the right questions, rapid evaluation, trust in your team and gut, and taking big theoretical issues and landing them in reality.

The complexity of decision making. I’ve long understood the pressures clients have on the balance of the short term and long-term gains. Quarterly earnings expectations. Marketplace disruption. I didn’t think it could get any more complex. But, CEOs, and the companies they lead, are held to higher expectations than ever before. It’s not enough to navigate the business landscape, you must also determine how to use the company position for good in the world and ensure that the culture lives up to positive modern reflections of our society. And there are bigger threats to navigate and potholes to avoid in today’s landscape. You must step carefully.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be a company leader. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful C-Suite executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be in that position?

  1. The ability to entrust in others.
  2. The ability to change and grow.
  3. Comfort with problems, chaos, and conflict, and an obsession with facing and solving the problem
  4. Understanding people and an ability to judge talent and character.
  5. Courage, resilience, and patience.

People that operate from fear and control will struggle to lead an organization. This doesn’t mean that we don’t face alarming situations or sometimes choose a risk-averse path as a result. But people who avoid conflict create subversive organizations. People who fear failure won’t take risks. People who try to control everything under the guise of “high standards” will soon find themselves exhausted and falling behind. All these things hold an organization back and destroy its ability to attract and retain talent.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Use your values as an instrument for leading, as it will come naturally to you and feel consistent to others.

Don’t feel annoyed if you have to explain your decisions more than your male counterparts. In the end, they will be better understood and adopted. Be a model of strength, overcoming obstacles, facing doubt and handling feedback. But also, be a model for believing in yourself, your own opinions and instincts. Listen, but don’t assume that just because someone says it, that it is right or has more weight than your own opinion. Be direct and honest while also being aware of your impact on someone. Call it as you see it but do it with empathy because we deal in a lot of grey areas and you often won’t have a full picture.

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 about that?

Don’t tell him, but that would be my husband. He is massively curious and analytical. He approaches all topics that way, forming an opinion on everything. He gets frustrated conversing with someone that doesn’t have a point-of-view. Just ask our kids.

Often the contrarian, he can be my toughest critic and my best guide for sharpening my approach and strategies. He is a great “ideas man” and often, conversations with him yield new thoughts and directions. He can also be a pain in the neck!

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Admittedly, as an introvert, I am not much of an activist. So, I focus my efforts on what I can do in my immediate realm by being a good boss (though I hate that word). I’ve always felt rewarded by this and believe that business needs better leaders. Effective and empathetic leadership is a difficult and dying set of skills. So, perhaps I can make a difference by providing a model and helping others learn and grow. I try to set a very human example so that the people I work with can create their own balance of efficacy and empathy and go on to be confident and successful in their own abilities.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started as CEO” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. You are like a brand now. You have to manage your perceptions and awareness. It takes time to build this internally and externally through press, engagements, and networking. A false move can set you back substantially. I wish I had started doing this earlier in my career, so it felt more comfortable now. I think about this with the rest of our staff and I want to give them opportunities to grow and hone their personal brands as well.
  2. People don’t like change, you have to sell them on change. I get frustrated with inertia. But, after enough failed attempts at creating change, you have to figure out another way. I recognize my biggest job is to SELL change. I have to get them interested and excited, and then put it in their hands.
  3. You don’t owe every individual an explanation. Organizations always have folks that have tendencies to complain, assume negative intent, or believe that you don’t understand. Sometimes, a decision is important enough to go the extra mile and talk to individuals. But I can’t spend my time changing adversarial thinking in a few individuals. This is also the value of having a great leadership team, as they can help create understanding.
  4. Just because someone says you should do it, doesn’t mean you should do it. Everyone has an opinion, sometimes an emotional opinion, often a biased opinion, about what you should do or need to do. I might have as many as 10 different opinions on any given topic on any given day. But my job isn’t to be an order taker or to serve individual people and agendas. My job is to objectively make the best decisions for the company as a whole and the people within it, considering the perspectives of others. There are times this puts me at odds with people that I greatly respect, but at the end of the day, you have to trust your gut.
  5. Tone setting. I grew up in a different industry than what it is today, for better and for worse. My career was characterized by “do what it takes”, “do what you’re told”, “everyone is replaceable” and “you’re only as good as your last project.” I learned to handle intimidating conversations and situations, and in turn, developed an amazing work ethic and resilience. Today’s employees want a different and more empathetic tone that is respectful of individual abilities and needs, a nurturing learning environment, and work/life balance. Higher expectations for the role of corporations in society and culture. I’ve learned that what’s ingrained in me has to expand or evolve to succeed as a leader and motivate other generations of employees to grow and shape their careers. I must step outside of myself and look at prevailing thinking and approaches for the times and come at it with an understanding of their perspective. Otherwise, I’d probably start to sound like my grandfather!

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

The critical thinking movement. Given my journalism studies, I’m concerned about bite-sized news. It creates dramatic and shallow headlines meant to get a reaction. Perspective and context get lost. I feel we are losing the confidence and energy to question things, and the patience to do the research and hear different perspectives. It’s, unfortunately, easier and faster to accept prevailing headlines and move on to making our dinner reservation at the hottest new restaurant. I’d like to see a new kind of consumerism — balanced information consumerism.

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

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” — Robert Frost

I love this quote because it’s about resilience. This trait has been most important to me in my long-standing career in the ad business, which is not for the faint of heart. I’ve experienced many challenges and growth — the endless pressure and indiscriminate decisions of pitching, client turnover, staff turnover, negotiation pressures, PR crises, a wild spectrum of personalities, the pace of cultural change, the expectations on brands from digitization, rapid innovation, long hours, new generations of employees with different wants and needs, restructuring, in-housing, offshoring, economic meltdowns, pandemics and the failings of our own system in combating harassment and delivering equity and equality to people of all backgrounds. I’ve been on the chopping block. I’ve had moments where my career was faltering. And I’ve taken a steadier career ascent than most. This business is truly a marathon, not a sprint. And the biggest motive to keep me going is the belief that bad times always pass, and good times are the best reward for that thinking.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

I would love to have breakfast (or lunch) with GE’s Linda Boff. I mean, where do I start…at a professional level, I admire her belief in the power of brands and storytelling. Her ability to change and innovate without losing that perspective. Her understanding of the connection between marketing and business strategy. On a personal level, she is a great storyteller, she has an approachability that makes you lean in and listen to every word she says, and she has built global respect in a traditionally male industry using grace, smarts, and confidence.

I attended one of her speaking engagements, watched many interviews with her, and walked away with two great quotes I’ve never forgotten. “Take more than your fair share of the blame and less than your fair share of the credit” and “You are never as good as your best day and never as bad as your worst. Keep your perspective.”

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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