Vulnerable leadership is the remedy to toxic agency culture

By Stephanie Banno

Let’s not beat around the bush, we all know a career in agency isn’t one without its issues. One scroll down the dark, depressing hole that is the @agency_insider Instagram account very quickly showcases that. Sure, there are the taxing hours. But heck, what about the research that consistently ranks our professions at the top of the “most stressed” lists or our mental health being lower than the national average.

In light of The Great Resignation it’s important for agencies, more than ever, to cleanse their working cultures of its toxic traits.

I don’t have a solution for every one of the industry’s problems, but I have an inkling on where we could (and should) start to remedy toxicity. It stems from my own (mostly positive) agency experiences. And I wouldn’t say it’s all that complex.


Vulnerability is the remedy to toxicity.

When I look back at my career there’s an important denominator that’s been key to my positive experiences: when agency cultures embrace and don’t discourage vulnerability.

What’s ironic is agency life is one that’s always been prime for vulnerability. We should be experts in vulnerability. Because it is our jobs as industry professionals to understand (and leverage) consumer vulnerabilities. But also, because the day-to-day intricacies we open ourselves up to, while we bring our work to life, can leave many of us feeling emotionally exposed at times.


Agency culture is the result of the dynamic perpetuated by leadership.

Take my recent transition into a strategy role. The shift is one I’d been striving to make for several years. A move involving many conversations where, fuelled by my own self-belief, I was required to prove to my managers it was a job I could do. However, that self-confidence and conviction very quickly fell to pieces once I was eventually rewarded with my new role. I was hit with what almost became a career-ending injection of imposter syndrome. And I say this, not because I wasn’t performing in my new role, instead because I suddenly became blinded by self-deprecation and not being able to achieve the screwed-up expectations or assumptions that nobody else, just I, had created for myself in my new post.

Enter, my Creative Director, who pulled me aside to compassionately call me out on my self-doubt and reacted with a tale of his own. And helped me understand criticism of the work is not a criticism of me (cue: light-bulb moment). It’s instances like this, when businesses and their people choose to react to vulnerability with empathy (rather than punishment for displaying “weakness”), where the needle that dictates agency culture begins to shift from being toxic to positive. And in my case, got me out of my head and prevented a hasty resignation (no, really).

Ultimately, it’s never the agency “institution” that’s toxic. It’s usually those in leadership perpetuating that dynamic, by reacting to moments of vulnerability with perfectionist or faultless ideals, which in turn fuels a culture that’s rooted in avoiding and fearing displays of weakness.


What does vulnerable leadership look like?

  1. Get comfortable with saying “I don’t know” more often – whether it’s with clients, managers or peers, it’s ok to have to sleep on a question or lean on others for help in finding the answer.
  2. Walk away from perfectionist ideals – perfectionism is an unrealistic construct that’s quite literally impossible to achieve. It’s more realistic to expect and embrace the fact that mistakes will be made – the rich nectar we should be vying for are the learnings that derive from our (and your team’s) errors.
  3. Embrace (but there’s no need to chase) the uncomfortable – whether it’s the unknown or a difficult conversation, having the ability to face disagreeable circumstances as they arise is how bravery is born.
  4. Respond to displays of weakness with empathy – listen intently to your team’s concerns and demonstrate you understand what it’s like to stand in their shoes by providing examples of your own similar experiences.
  5. Sharing is caring – remember to frequently and proactively remind your team that you too are a work in progress, divulge when you’re feeling nervous, and set the course by openly acknowledging your own mistakes.


What happens when leadership adopts and mandates vulnerability.

Positive agency environments are ultimately products of the people who sit in leadership and whether they openly express their own vulnerable sides. I’ve heard my General Manager confess on multiple occasions they don’t know the answer. I was blown away when a prominent group executive admitted they lean on the expertise of others to build their points for quite niche panel talks. Heck, I’ve even seen my CEO break from “boss mode” and lose it at their kids on a zoom call.

These may seem like small, unimportant moments, but it’s influential and courageous displays of vulnerability or weakness like this that’re the real game changer.

Vulnerability is what fuels team honesty and inclusivity. It’s what creates intimate working environments that normalise (and don’t stigmatise) the omnipresence of mental health that so many in our industry battle (and I say this as someone who struggles with depression and anxiety herself). Vulnerability fosters trust, which gives everyone else in the team permission to feel comfortable enough to fuck up, so when that inevitability occurs, their mistakes are received with kindness and empathy. Vulnerability propels the empathy that creates the safety net for team members to be brave and put themselves out there as they grow and take risks. It’s the foundation of bravery that elevates our personal capabilities and an openness to sharing innovative thinking in the ways we solve a problem. And it’s what helps others realise they are good enough.

I’d say that’s pretty far from a toxic environment.


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