The Pandemic Set Fire to the Leadership Playbook Last Year
Simon Berg is CEO of Ceros, an interactive SaaS design platform that empowers brands like Red Bull, United, Conde Nast, and Universal to create bespoke digital experiential content without coding. Simon’s path to CEO has been unusual: after design school turned him down, he started working on an agency production floor at age 16, helping magazine publisher clients design and produce their print issues. As publishing moved into the digital era, Simon became a master of craft across both print and digital, which served as a catalyst for his 20-year, ladder-climbing journey to CEO of the same agency: Group FMG (now BORN). As CEO, Simon led the charge to sell the agency in order to build and grow Ceros, a technology platform he incubated while at Group FMG.
As a creative leader, I often find myself saying that adversity and constraint are at the birthplace of creativity. And last year gave us more adversity and constraint than we’ve ever experienced. At the same time, it was liberating in some ways. I felt free from the usual leadership playbook — the processes, protocols and memoranda — executives rely on to navigate their companies through routine challenges and existential threats alike. This time, however, the playbook fell short.
After all, what could it offer? What chapter of the accepted playbook covered global and civil crises? This was actually quite liberating, because for the first time the playbook stayed on the shelf and we could lead with creativity. We didn’t have a choice. There isn’t any data on where we are or where we’re heading. The only way forward is to be authentic, and I believe that can pay off tremendously well by uniting teams and encouraging creative solutions.
Good leaders do right by their employees — always
When we saw where 2020 was headed, I talked with employees about uncertain markets and the unknown future. But if there were 100 levers I could pull to stay afloat, salaries and positions would be the last two. Some might have advised me to go for those first, and if I were a numbers person, I might have agreed. But creative leaders look for creative solutions. So if a storm is coming toward your house, find a way to harness the wind.
What I asked of our team was to focus on two things: looking after each other and making our company a success. We went to battle with the circumstances thrown at us, and I had tough conversations with the board. No one lost their job. We’ve come through with a stronger culture, and our position in the interactive content marketplace has never been stronger. Leaders need to look beyond the playbook and do the things that make the numbers-obsessed nervous. That’s what will inspire your employees, board and customers.
Good leadership is actually an exercise in creativity, and employees (investors, too) are looking for leaders who can be authentic—not perfect. I think author and creativity advocate Austin Kleon summed it up well: “Art requires not knowing. It requires this uncertainty, to always be questing and always be questioning,” he said. “It’s that hard thing of being a teacher and remaining a student.”
We need creative leaders now more than ever
I believe that creativity matters. Is there anything creatives do better than solve problems? Creativity helps you chart a path. Having endured the past year, our team is more united than ever. We’re on the path together, and our customers are right there with us. They’ve been inspired by our empathy and our ability to work with them as they navigate the unknown.
How should leaders act when a customer is struggling? At Ceros, we categorized customers according to how they were affected. Some were paralyzed by the situation, others were struggling but still above water and some were bullish and thriving. We coached our team to start calls by asking about customers’ well-being, rather than asking if they were going to remain customers. If a customer is paralyzed, have compassion for them. Can you help? Can you defer a payment? Forget the ROI. Customers will thank you and be more loyal because you treated them with empathy.
My best advice for leaders on moving forward is to take a moment and ask yourself, “Am I being authentic in how I lead? Am I doing anything I know is broken or wrong?” And if you can identify that thing, do something about it. The old leadership playbook isn’t cutting it, so create your own approach. Your employees will thank you, and you’ll be happier for doing it, too.