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Advertising agencies are notorious for a lot of things….late nights putting together client presentations, cocktails over lunch and epic holiday parties (to name a few). One thing we don’t get a lot of play for, however, is training.

Unlike big companies, small independent creative advertising agencies don’t have a management track for their employees. You’re thrown into a management position when you’re either deemed competent to handle it or busy enough to warrant support.

Granted it’s probably not the most reliable system – there’ve certainly been times I longed for a more structured path – but it somehow produced some of the sharpest account service and strategic creative service talent in the market.

How did we get here?

If I were to reverse engineer the “process” to better define the pathway to success, I’d imagine I’d uncover a few things:

  • Agencies attract self-starters – people who are not satisfied following the status quo or coloring inside the lines
  • Young “managers” are excellent at teaching new hires the fundamentals of the agency business; for account service, that’s how to start a project, create an estimate, build a timeline, partner with creatives, etc.
  • More mature managers, however, struggle with getting their teammates to the proverbial “next level” because, in the agency world, it’s arbitrary. (Have you ever noticed the title variations across agencies? Sometimes an account director is the agency lead, while others that name is assigned to the day-to-day contact.) What’s more, many managers can’t model the approach they followed because they don’t necessarily recognize when or how it happened – was it through osmosis?

In my experience, this “next level” transition occurs when a manager feels confident enough to stop “managing” and start coaching. This shift is liberating to both parties – giving freedom to the manager and empowering the trainee.

The Keys to Being a Better Manager

Sounds like an easy shift, right? Who doesn’t want to hand off work or lighten their workload? Well, that’s not in the cards for a good manager. It’s hard and takes constant attention and self-discovery.

What’s more, you’re learning while you’re doing the job…and hopefully adjusting on the fly as the situation requires. You can’t replace on-the-job experience, but here are three tips that might help ease the transition:

  1. Recognize that your way is not the only “right” way – this is obviously easier said than done. But shifting from management to mentorship pushes you to think beyond simple black and white answers to uncover a range of approaches that yield the “right” solution.
  2. Direct through methods that encourage and challenge – the tricky part is that there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for every employee. You have to customize this path, often making course corrections as you go, adjusting your approach to align with different personalities or learning styles.
  3. Be enthusiastic about your teammates’ successes – as a mentor, you should be your employees’ biggest champion and advocate. And when they succeed – and they will if you are supporting and guiding them – it’s a reflection on you, and there’s no greater professional reward.

While it’s not a step-by-step guide for shifting from a manager to a mentor, hopefully this post provokes some self-discovery and/or removes some of the fear for all those managers/mentors in training. If you have any advice to share – or maybe a personal anecdote about your path as a manager – hit me up on LinkedIn! I’d love to hear your point of view!