How leaders get top-down success

Leadership has an indisputable role to play in engaging staff to give their best, as Edwin Smith discovers in conversation with a top business executive

In the early days of the company, soon after 21-year-old Ajaz Ahmed dropped out of his degree at the University of Bath to set up AKQA in 1994, it would have been relatively straightforward to ensure employees were engaged with their work.

But since then the business has grown. Having become the largest independent digital advertising agency in the world, AKQA was bought by Sir Martin Sorrell’s WPP in 2012 in a deal that valued Mr Ahmed’s company at $540 million. It generated $230 million (£147 million) in revenue that year, the last year for which figures are publicly available, and now has 1,500 staff as well as 11 offices around the world, with plans for two more.

One consequence of this for Mr Ahmed, and for all leaders in businesses beyond a certain size, is that it is impossible to have regular direct contact with the vast majority of employees. The energy and sense of purpose that a small-business owner is able to pass on by sheer proximity must necessarily be transmitted to staff via at least one degree of separation. Fortunately, Mr Ahmed says, he is able to call on a small group of carefully chosen lieutenants.

“That’s the only reason the company can run,” he says. “There are 1,500 people in the organisation now and I have daily interaction with a handful. But I trust these people implicitly, and I believe they represent the values and the key characteristics of the company many times better than I do.”

For any organisation, what you do will always be more important than what you say

AKQA’s roster of clients, which includes blue-chip brands such as Nike, Ferrari and Heineken, and the fact that it has won more industry awards than any of its digital competitors, suggest members of the company’s management are acquitting themselves well. But, Mr Ahmed says, to an extent this is a logical consequence of the mechanism by which people rise to those positions in the first place.

“One of our core aspirations is to create a meritocracy where the people who contribute the most, regardless of their background or when they joined the firm, are the people who get the most opportunities,” he says.

“But without a vision, even good people can get lost. The point of leadership is to give the team a clear, articulated vision so they can take the decision to either be a part of it or not. If the team knows what the values and the narrative are that the company wants to own, then I think it gives them the chance to make the decision to put their energy into it and make it work.”

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Mr Ahmed admits he doesn’t like the buzzwords that pervade so much talk about business and management. But he says that when it comes to dealing with employee engagement and making sure a company’s management sends the right message in the right way, there is one principle in particular that should be elevated to special status.

“You rarely hear it when these buzzwords are being bandied about, but it is the single most important word – respect.

“If the manager respects their subordinates to run an organisation, the subordinates will have respect for the manager. It also means that the people on the team will have respect for their customers and the work they do,” he says.

Perhaps, after people read this, the idea of respect in management will enjoy a renaissance? “Yes,” says Mr Ahmed. Then, only half-joking: “People will be writing books about ‘The Respect Economy’.”

He adds that in order to encourage respect to permeate the organisation and its management structure, there are occasions when he takes a hard line. “I don’t tolerate any mediocrity and I don’t tolerate any toxicity,” he says, in a matter-of-fact tone. “We’ve had people that have been OK in terms of competency, but we’ve removed from the organisation because they were toxic.

“Lots of companies keep people like that, but it does not create the culture [of engagement] that you’re talking about. In order to create the culture that most people want to work in – one that’s respectful, collegial and gives people the growth and fulfilment they want – my job as a leader is to eliminate toxicity.

“Particularly in large organisations, you also need to articulate what you are in conflict with. In our case, that’s mediocrity, politics, bureaucracy, buzzwords. If you don’t make that clear, then people within your organisation will be in conflict with each other.”

Although it becomes apparent that Mr Ahmed thinks the best way to equip his company’s leaders to empower the rest of the workforce is by building a cohesive culture across the whole company, he also extols the benefits of more targeted training.

Since becoming part of the WPP group, some AKQA staff have been able to take advantage of a “mini MBA” that has been developed by the parent company. “We’re delighted to be able to [send people on the courses],” he says. “If you’re expanding people’s minds, how can they not love that? It inspires them, motivates them and educates them for the path they’ve decided to follow.”

So the training sessions for management are one perk of being part of WPP, but what is the most important thing that AKQA has gained as a result of the deal? “Martin [Sorrell] and his team,” says Mr Ahmed, without hesitation. “They’re absolutely world class and truly, truly unique. I love working with them. Martin is not afraid of hard work, tough decisions and doing the right thing. And you’d be amazed by how many people in a similar job won’t do that.”

Mr Ahmed says there are similarities in terms of the individual management styles that he and Sir Martin employ, particularly in terms of “clarity of communication”. He’s less keen to discuss where their traits diverge, but does use the word “disciplined” to describe WPP more than once.

By way of summing up, he says that, if leaders and managers are to expect their employees to believe in and engage with what they’re doing, they have to begin with “a compelling, brilliant message that makes perfect sense; then articulate it in the simplest way possible”.

But, he warns, it’s important to remember that talk is cheap. “If what you’re saying doesn’t have any authenticity or believability, then it’s worthless. But if it’s backed up by actions that push everything in the direction of the organisation’s purpose, then it’s motivating,” he says. “For any organisation, what you do will always be more important than what you say.”

And, according to Mr Ahmed, there’s a simple, if ethereal, test that can be applied to discern whether a management team is getting this right. “An environment that has engaged employees gives people energy,” he says. “An environment that doesn’t drains energy. It’s the vibe.”

After leaving the west London cafe in which we meet, I find myself looking over notes from the previous occasion I interviewed Mr Ahmed, shortly after the deal with WPP was announced in 2012. A number of suitors had made bids for AKQA, but at the time Mr Ahmed said he was minded to work with Sir Martin – and effectively take him on as his boss – because the WPP chief executive was “more driven than ever”. Mr Ahmed then added: “We find that motivating.” It’s possible that the leaders in AKQA and, in turn, the people working under them, would say the same thing.

LEADER’S CHECKLIST

• Articulate the company’s vision

• Create a meritocracy

• Trust your peers

• Encourage respect throughout

• Eliminate toxicity

• Don’t deal in buzzwords

• Communicate with clarity

• But remember, talk is cheap