May 3, 2011

The Senior Issue

Filed under: Career Advice,Leadership — Joe Grant @ 6:00 pm

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There’s a serious and potentially heart-wrenching problem in many agencies that bubbles just below audible conversation: senior executives no longer justifying their keep. It affects everyone. And it’s time to talk about it.

Here’s the problem.  People work awfully hard in our business and use up a lot of themselves in the process. That may be why in their 50s some conclude they’re not going to get a whole lot further than where they already are, so why push so hard? Maybe I can coast a little and still be well paid. I’ll retire soon enough, in a few years. But just not right now.

We call these people the “soon retiring” or SRs.

To some an SR who’s contributing less and less to the bottom line can appear to be selfishly harvesting profits and bleeding off a 6-figure salary. Toss in perqs (bonus, car, self-approving expense accounts, club memberships, etc.) and there’s a pretty big hole in the bucket.

Would the money spent on an SR yield a better return increasing new business efforts, developing new services, buying out a competitor, delivering serious training, or rewarding or hiring stronger talent? That’s the heart of the dilemma because those kind of business opportunities can be seriously thwarted by supporting an SR. More than once we’ve seen an agency starve itself from growth because it was carrying this sort of burden.

Yet it wouldn’t be fair to push that good ole’ SR out to pasture, you say. He or she was there at the beginning, risked so much, spent all those nights and weekends away from home (maybe a divorce along the way?). This is where it gets really torturous. You feel a moral obligation to be fair to folks who’ve given so much.

Alright. Let’s talk about “fair.”

Some say it’s not fair to allow the company to be held hostage by a highly paid but no-longer-as-productive SR. It’s not fair to those at full song trying to move the company forward. Ambitious younger people may seek opportunity elsewhere…and suddenly your competition has all the good talent.

OK, but what about “loyalty” and “reward”? Doesn’t the SR deserve a cushy last few years at the end of the work rainbow? Maybe, but some argue there shouldn’t be an unspecified “obligation” to keep anybody aboard indefinitely.

Reading this far you’re probably disappointed we haven’t revealed some bromide to fix this issue. Believe me, having guided several agencies through these treacherous waters there is no one-size-fits-all answer. It’s a tight complex knot of human compassion, economics, emotional baggage and unspoken expectations.

But there are a few guidelines we use when helping agencies unravel these sensitive problems:

1. Eliminate denial. Don’t pretend it isn’t happening or will fix itself. You, the senior team, and the SR must acknowledge that something’s out of whack. Face up to it because it’s the kind of thing you get paid to face up to. A Chinese proverb we’re fond of instructs that the beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right name.

2. See the whole picture. Decisions about SRs rest on the leadership team’s responsibility to do the best forallemployees. These difficult resolutions have to be right for the company and its health, not just the convenience of a few.

3. Dignity is fundamental. That’s dignity for all. Resolve to honor everyone’s ego and emotional needs as well as your own sanity and good conscience. I’m here to tell you that you can craft solutions which can sustain self-esteem and not make people feel like dirt.

4. Be fair. But don’t confuse fairness with generosity. Sometimes those of us with soft hearts make really dumb business decisions because our emotions overpower common sense. Your actions must be consistent with the firm’s core purpose and values. Remember that treating one person with a heavy dose of “fairness” at the expense of others is wrong too. Principles by definition are ecumenical.

5. Get outside perspective. It’s a sure bet that you’re too close to the situation to see it objectively because, ironically, you know too much. Seek off-site counsel – all parties deserve it.

6. Be safe. Wearing a life jacket doesn’t mean you hope to end up in the water. Get legal guidance before any precipitous decisions.

One more thing. We better figure this out or the well-meaning baby-boomer SRs will unconsciously throttle down a lot of otherwise healthy agencies. Remember, the clock ticks for all of us. YOU’LL be an SR some day.

We all will.

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  1. Joe, I find advertising to be an especially brutal category for people in their 50’s+ — it seems like many disappear from the profession after a certain age if they are not partners/principals. Or, they leave traditional agency life and consult, go to the “client side,” etc.

    In your experience, is this a myth or does my observation have a grain of truth attached to it? I’m writing a novel about ad agencies now and am curious about your thoughts on this.

    Comment by Stephen Moegling — May 4, 2011 @ 12:34 pm

  2. More than just a grain of truth, Stephen — at least a bucketful. Though I don’t know of any scholarly studies on the subject, my experience working with a variety of agency principals over the years is that it’s difficult to keep stoking the fire in the belly after 30 or 40 years in our business. There are exceptions, of course, but unless you’ve got an ownership stake with appropriate incentives to perform it can become a burden. Had several owner/CEOs tell me they felt trapped by their ownership yet saw no way of getting out. Harder these days to reap the pot of gold, too — not many folks buying agencies, especially general or traditional ones anymore.

    Comment by Joe Grant — May 4, 2011 @ 3:59 pm

  3. Excellent opinion piece, Joe! Remembering my own “married to the job” schedule in my 20s, 30s, and into my 40s, I know very well I wouldn’t have been willing (or able) to work so long and hard in the years since. Yet like many SRs, I love the business of communications and can’t envision quitting it.

    I think the solution is for agencies to figure out a way to get the best of their SRs’ knowhow and skill while scaling back the demands of the job — e.g., working on one or two accounts instead of five or six; consulting or coaching instead of being on the front lines. Financially, maybe the SR’s taxable income is reduced but the company kicks in a little more into a nonqualified retirement plan or defined benefit plan.

    It’s been suggested for some time that boomers will be interested in phased retirement strategies rather than quitting cold turkey. Agencies have an opportunity to be in the creative vanguard on this matter.

    Comment by Sherry Christie — May 4, 2011 @ 10:10 pm

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