Four Traits of Emerging Leaders

Jessica Wade
Jessica Wade
Senior Account Director

May 16, 2019

Partners from around the world who talked about the traits they seek in emerging leaders.

In March, I had the opportunity to attend the IPREX Global Leadership Conference in Dublin. DH is a partner in IPREX, a global network of 65 independently owned communications and marketing firms. This partnership allows us to seamlessly tap into the experience and resources of our partners at any time — providing access to new ideas, best practices and expertise from around the world.

The conference focused on developing qualities in emerging leaders. Principals at a number of IPREX firms shared what they look for when choosing their firm’s next generation of leaders:

Think like an owner, not a manager

There is a big difference between managers, who focuses on implementing others’ strategy (i.e., making sure all the boxes of a project checklist get checked), and leaders, who determine strategy, commit to the work and inspire the team.

A leader acts like an owner, paying attention to all the happenings at the agency — identifying gaps and taking initiative to fill those gaps. Emerging leaders should focus on getting immersed in industry best practices, paying attention to the landscape and diving into new business development.

Not sure where you fall between manager and leader? Pay attention to the questions you ask in meetings. Account managers focus on who, where, when questions. A leader will ask what and why. If you want to be a leader, start asking what and why questions about your firm’s strategy.

Make opportunity, don’t just wait for opportunity

Emerging leaders should be on the lookout for change. As one agency principal said at the conference, “I want my leaders to know about change before I do. I want them to advise me.”

Don’t wait for leadership opportunities to arrive before you. Take the initiative. And, again, act like an owner. This requires skills beyond simply leading client projects. It involves leading sales, marketing and innovation projects.

Ask yourself, “What does my agency need?” And then ask yourself, “How can I empower my firm to address that need?”

Build trust and psychological safety

When trust breaks down in teams, not only do relationships break down, but the work also suffers. Emerging leaders need to think about how they create psychological safety for their teams and provide an environment where people are safe to ask questions, learn, disagree and push back.

One of the most important things a leader can do is provide feedback — and a lot of it. As a trainer at the conference said, “Praise loudly and blame softly.”

A strong leader is one who can be vulnerable. This is the kind of leader who will have candid conversations with the team — and invite that kind of feedback in return. If you’re a team leader, and trust has broken down, ask yourself what you can do to repair it.

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

Curiosity was a word that came up a lot at the conference. During a workshop session, one of the trainers asked us to observe ourselves in team dynamics. What questions are we asking? Where do we jump in? Where we do hold back? He challenged us to remain curious even when we faced challenges and anxiety. Could we observe ourselves with self-compassion and awareness? Could we be honest and self-reflect?

Being a leader is uncomfortable. A leader forges into new territory. A leader provides context and sense-making. A leader helps the whole team tolerate risk and often serves to contain the team’s anxiety.

This conference reminded us that it’s good to be uncomfortable. As one IPREX principal put it, “Look for opportunities to be uncomfortable. It’s where growth happens.”

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