Cultivating the 'age of we'

As he looks back on his time at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Jim Carroll calls for a focus on the 'we' in an era of individuality, because realising human capital could help businesses succeed.

Jim Carroll
Jim Carroll

In 1975, Muhammad Ali was invited to talk to a group of Harvard students. Someone in the crowd shouted: "Give us a poem, Muhammad!" He paused for a moment, looked up and said: "Me. We."

This couplet competes for the title of the shortest poem ever written (with "Fleas. Adam had ’em" and "I – Why?").

I particularly like Ali’s poem because it suggests two fundamental questions: Who am I? Who are we? Sometimes, I suspect these may be the two most important questions of all.

Inevitably, one’s career is a voyage of self-discovery. What are my strengths and weaknesses, my values, tastes and beliefs? How do I perform, with encouragement and under stress, on my own and in a team? And, as I have suggested elsewhere, leadership is best demonstrated by people who can identify and amplify their truest strengths. For me, leadership is "the amplified self".

But "who am I?" may be the easier of the two questions to answer. We’re nowadays all taught self-awareness, self-realisation, self-expression. We’ve got 360-degree, two-way appraisals. We’ve got mindfulness and feedback sandwiches. We live in the "age of me".

How often do we properly consider "we"?

In the past, "we" was defined by notions of class, race, region and religion. But it’s obviously more complex now. My own answer to "who are we?" has changed with time and perspective.

We were the swotty kids, the musos. We were Essex and NME. We were Catholic guilt and postmodern irony. We were suburban soul boys, Prosecco socialists. We were second-hand clothes and third-XI football. We were pubs with carpet, pies with mash, dancing with feet. We were London. We were the arts people, The Guardian, Radio 4.

And, similarly, my professional "we" has evolved too. We were John, John and Nigel’s team. We were restless, spirited and serious-minded. We were brand-centric, forward-facing, creative. We were Bass Weejuns, 501s, MA-1. We were Soho, black and steel, MTV in reception. We were broad and shallow planning. We were work that was funny, clever, beautiful. We were Gwyn & Jim. We were a singing agency, an agency that cared. We hung on, we rolled with the punches. We were positive, optimistic, collegiate. We laughed.

Peter Drucker reputedly said: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast". I'm sure he was right. For me, culture is strategy

On reflection, it seems that the happiest times for me were when I had an intense sense of "we"; when I felt part of a strong culture with a serious purpose. Peter Drucker reputedly said: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." I’m sure he was right. Indeed, for me, culture is strategy.

Perhaps it is a question you should try asking yourself. Not just "who am I?" but "who are we?". Who are my group, gang, team or cohort? Who are my generation? What do we believe in? What defines us? As an agency, as a discipline, as a team? What makes us different from previous generations, from everyone else? How will we make an impact? What will our legacy be?

I suspect it may be harder to cultivate "we" in the modern era, in an age of individuality and empowerment, when our careers are flexible, our loyalties fluid. However, I think there is a point at which the individual and the collective intersect.

Increasingly, any business’ commercial and social success will be determined by its ability to realise the full potential of the individuals within it. Realising human capital, creating sustainability in human terms – these are the present priorities. Traditional top-down leadership styles are obviously less suited to this networked age.

Modern businesses need to inspire a broad-based, integrated culture of diverse leadership styles.

Because a leadership culture creates a leadership brand.

Or, as Ali would have put it a little more succinctly: "Me. We."

Jim Carroll is the outgoing UK chairman of Bartle Bogle Hegarty

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