On the Campaign couch: Can a boss be too nice?
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch: Can a boss be too nice?

Can you be too nice to be the boss?

Only if you define "nice" as meaning "trying very hard to be thought to be nice by absolutely everyone all the time". 

When I was a member of management, in pubs or at leaving parties I was often pinned into corners and told: "You know what’s wrong with this agency? I know I shouldn’t be saying this but I’ve had a glass or two and, anyway, somebody’s got to say it. The trouble with this agency is that there’s too much dead wood! There’s just too much bloody dead wood – that’s what’s wrong with this agency!" 

Over time, it became clear that every single person in the agency was in agreement that the agency contained far too much dead wood. Where opinions differed was in precisely where this dead wood was to be found. No-one said: "And as part of that dead wood myself, I’m handing in my resignation tomorrow morning." Dead wood was always other people.

Furthermore, one person’s dead wood was another’s saintly, unobtrusive servant who, behind the scenes, covered up for the flamboyant few and allowed the agency to function. Indeed, it was often the flamboyant few, almost certainly among the most lavishly rewarded, who were not only the highest-profile dead-wood candidates but were also seen to present the greatest potential cost savings.

If your aim as a boss is to be thought to be nice by everybody all the time, you will be a disaster. You will never risk incurring the displeasure of anyone by dealing with the dead wood. So though none will agree on the exact identity of the dead wood, they will all agree on its existence and even more so on your monumental incompetence in failing to deal with it.

However, should you expect credit for having dealt with the dead wood, you will be disappointed. No-one will congratulate you – least of all those who had been the most persistent in urging you to do so. Why should you expect credit for having belatedly done what you’re paid to do – and what everyone else could see needed doing months ago?

Good bosses recognise the occasional need for well-intentioned social hypocrisy; so having had those deeply uncomfortable conversations with the dead wood, you should give them a modest leaving party at which you pay them selective but truthful compliments. The others will think you right to have taken the action you took (finally!) and right to have done it with sensitivity. 

Then take care to leave the party before someone pins you into a corner and says: "You know what’s wrong with this agency? I know I shouldn’t be saying this but I’ve had a glass or two and, anyway, somebody’s got to say it…"

I’m a creative who has worked hard for years in the hope of making it to the top. But, as part of a reshuffle, an outsider – with no traditional creative experience – has been hired above me. Should I take this as a sign I’m not good at my job and/or urgently need to reskill? 
My immediate instinct was to leap to an indignant conclusion. That’s what old buffers do, you see. We can’t help it. Typical, we think: yet again, some insecure, over-promoted, traditional agency management person has been gulled by an evangelistic member of the digerati into believing that a total inability to understand a word the digeratist is saying is all the evidence needed that the agency’s only hope of survival is to buy whatever it is the digeratist is selling in the hope that he’ll find out sooner or later what it is that he’s bought and then be able to take the credit for it. (That’s what the phrase "no traditional creative experience" should have alerted you to.) It’s outrageous: you’ve every reason to feel publicly humiliated. 

My more leisurely response is this. Lie low, keep quiet and work as hard as you always have. Within a year, you’ll be the most sought-after person in the agency. And when the new outsider departs, as is inevitable, please don’t gloat; but neither should you expect to be the replacement. Whole books have been written about the senior masters of great schools who, though never famous headmasters themselves, have enhanced the reputations of their schools for generations while helping endless children learn and grow. Deep in the heart of every long-established and successful agency, there’s an advertising equivalent. It’s a noble role and one for which you’re well-suited.

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, Bridge House, 69 London Road, Twickenham, TW1 3SP