November 6, 2017

Agency Leadership with Big Spaceship and Odopod

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SoDA is thrilled to welcome Michael Lebowitz and Johnathan Tann as faculty leaders for the Agency Leadership Track at the 2018 SoDA Academy. Michael is the Founder and CEO of Big Spaceship in New York and one of the original founding members of SoDA. JT is Chairman of Odopod in San Francisco and a Founding Partner at Spring Advisors.

I spoke with Michael and JT recently about agency leadership, peer-to-peer mentorship and the importance of learning by doing.

Agency Leadership covers some broad territory and it’s certainly not a domain where there’s much of a clearly transcribed roadmap for success. How do you view the role of leadership in the agency world and what are some of the skills you’ve cultivated to help you navigate it most successfully?


There's been a lot of ink and blood spilled on the idea of management versus leadership. Leadership to me, in practice day-to-day, is really about nurturing and understanding how to protect the organization from the many threats that can arise both internally and externally.
Protecting the good of what we have and leaving room for everything to still be open to constant improvement. It's a balance of protection and elasticity. And, for me, it all starts and ends with culture.


You started Big Spaceship almost 17 years ago. Did you know what you were getting into when you decided to lead your own business?


Not even a little bit. I mean, I didn't really know anything. And frankly one of the things that I've learned along the way is that I'm a good leader, I'm an ok manager and I’m a mediocre operations person. Knowing yourself and what you're contributing, potentially negatively, to the system is an important part of leadership too.


How about you, JT? What do you see as the primary domain of agency leadership?


I think about my role in two ways – a leader needs to both steer the ship and push it forward.
A leader has to be able to clearly and persuasively define what it is that his or her agency does. It seems simple but in a market that is changing as quickly as ours, it’s essential. The more strategic part of leadership is setting the lodestar. Not only defining who you are today but where you’re headed. It's also understanding that getting to that place in the future requires great management… requires the entire team. I believe that the difference between leadership and management, in certain respects, is this balance of definition and vision.


Do you think it’s important to be able to fluidly move between these roles, the manager and the leader, as you run your organization?


Self-knowledge is both a blessing and curse. My strength is operational management and, at times, I find myself falling back on this rather than focusing more energy on vision and leadership. But it’s important to develop this self-awareness… to recognize when you’re slipping back into your comfort zone. I think good leaders are able to move in and out of their dual roles of definition and vision and to hire the right people to help get the business to the next place.


Leadership isn’t a role you can easily learn in school. To what extent has peer learning and mentorship helped you grow and evolve as a leader?


The lion's share of my learning has been by doing.  And when I say by doing, I mean doing things wrong over and over again. Eventually, I got to a certain point where I felt more comfortable making tough decisions and putting myself into situations I would have never tackled earlier in my career.
In terms of mentorship, I haven't had a lot of the traditional “more-experienced-to-less-experienced” hierarchical mentorship but I've certainly, through the industry and through SoDA, had a lot of lateral mentorship… learning from a group of people facing similar challenges. There's also a couple of people that have emerged for me more recently. There’s a professor at Harvard Business School that’s written a few case studies on Big Spaceship and he’s become a real asset to me. It turns out that for anything you're struggling with in business, Harvard Business School has written a case study about another company and how they dealt with it.


The idea of mentorship is fascinating to me. Going back to 1994 when I started with there was a group of people that were just trying to figure this digital thing out. This group, over the years, became people I would consider to be mentors to me… people that I could call upon to ask how they handle challenging situations and, more importantly, people that would keep me in check. That remains to this day and I'm really grateful to have had that support system, particularly early in my career.
More recently, I’ve really enjoyed helping mentor some amazing agencies that are just coming up… serving as a sounding board and trying to help them avoid some of the mistakes that I've made. I talk to leaders who are starting agencies today and it's remarkably different from an organizational standpoint and the mix of work that they’re tackling. I’m continually learning from these new founders just as much as I might be mentoring.


That’s a great point, JT. The agency business is in the midst of a major transition. “Digital” is a catalyst in this forced evolution but even digitally native agencies now find themselves facing an intensely competitive and uncertain future. What do you think is required of agency leaders today that may not have been as critical 5 years ago?


Oh man… I don’t know… this shit has been hard for a long time. I don't know if there's anything uniquely different in terms of making it harder or easier. At the end of the day, I'm drawn to leaders that are extremely confident and have a clear vision… a vision they can articulate with passion. Not only in the work they’re doing but in the people they’re hiring and the clients they’re serving. Those are constant. I think there is a thread that carries through and running an agency now requires some different management skills but from a leadership perspective a lot of the same stuff applies.


The single best thing that anybody can do as a leader is make the implicit more explicit. As a leader, it becomes very convenient to make assumptions because you have so many things to think about and a thousand different scenarios to react to. For most of us, we need shortcuts to quickly navigate this onslaught of information and part of the natural human condition is to take those shortcuts unconsciously rather than strategically. Some of it is simply making assumptions that people understand things a certain way and know things a certain way. Stopping and taking a breath and asking yourself, “What am I making assumptions about right now” and “what is implicit that needs to be explicit… what am I assuming is implicit?” Also learning to ask questions and say, “I don't know.” Given the pace at which things are changing and the pace at which leaders need to move, I think this is more important today than it’s ever been.


In the spirit of continual learning, are there any books you’ve read recently or podcasts you listen to regularly that you’ve found useful or impacted the way you view your role as a leader?


I try to stay away from most industry-oriented materials… most of it just entrenches the status quo. Having kids is probably the best training I’ve had recently. I'm reading a book on parenting right now called, The Explosive Child… which will tell you something about one of my two children. This book taught me a huge amount about interpersonal relationships and how people work. It's pretty fascinating. Another one I read over the summer is Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind. It's pretty incredible to learn about the human condition from a completely macro perspective. There's something in there that I thought was really profound.


I stay away completely from industry-related stuff as well. I feel like I spend most of my day thinking about these things and it's nice to take a break and get something else. I’ve been walking a lot more and podcasts are becoming a big part of how I stay plugged in. I like the a16z podcast from Andressen Horowitz.


That’s my favorite too… the a16z podcast… the best.


Exactly. I can always get a nugget that is really good.  Some of its leadership… some technology. They have a strong point of view and obviously some of it is self-serving…but it makes you think.
I also listen to Kara Swisher's podcast, Recode Decode. She’s a great interviewer, asks really tough questions and has 1:1 conversations with some very interesting people.


I started listening to audio books in the car and it's changed my life. Every time I finish a book I'll switch to a little podcast time so that I'm not going all in one format. It’s been transformational for me. I listened to Ben Horowitz’s book (The Hard Thing About Hard Things) on audio book and it was like I was the lead singer. There’s some really good stuff in there.


The last one that really impacted me was a book called, The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt. It's basically about why good people disagree. It is pretty fascinating.

Tom Beck

Executive Director, SoDA


Michael Lebowitz

CEO, Big Spaceship


Johnathan Tann

CEO, Odopod

The SoDA Academy will be held at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York on April 9-10. Don’t miss this unique opportunity to learn from and learn with some of the best and brightest in the industry. Request an invite today.