Leading on a global scale can be a difficult challenge, but collaborating is an essential tool when doing so. In this Taking The Lead segment, Dan Nestle, who’s been leading communications globally for nearly a decade, invites viewers to think about approaching leadership at a universal level.
He also shares insights into company structure, communication style, time management, and leadership styles across cultures.
Here are excerpts from the full video interview:
You've been a senior leader at global corporations and global agencies. In what ways are leading in these spaces the same, and in which ways different?
I had to think about how I lead in an agency. I've been leading in global corporations for the last six or seven years, and I don't know if we could really call what I did in agency leadership.
My stint at Edelman was short enough to be relatively un-leader like, but maybe my stint was short because it wasn't much of a leadership stint to begin with. I feel like I could have learned a lot more in terms of leadership there. What I did figure out in the short time I was there, and what I think is true, having now been a client of many agencies for a long time, is that time is compressed.
It's a very different approach that you take to your day-to-day work and to leading when your time is dictated by multiple stakeholders. In the case of an agency, you're talking about multiple companies. As an agency leader, you're accountable for leading your teams; for every client, you have a whole different team.
For every engagement, you have a whole different leadership style. Multi-directional leaders, for example, should practice managing anxiety and keeping calm to maximize their leadership skills. On the corporate side, leaders typically have more of a luxury of time. I think in most situations, getting up to speed takes time. I say typically because I can't speak for somebody who is hired as a CEO, where you're expected to make it rain right away.
For somebody at the mid-senior level who is brought in to lead a team, you have a little bit of time to catch up. They have the opportunity to get to know the business, but then your learning curve has to continue on a very sharp basis. Once you're up to speed, you have a very different level of accountability. You have to lead for what is good for your company and your team and what is good for your vendor relationships.
The benefits of being in an agency like Edelman were the relationships I built there. Relationship building is the other essence of leadership that I think is the same across wherever you are, and that's always been a superpower of mine. The friendships I formed at Edelman are ones that I still have to this day. In fact, some of the business I do as a corporate communicator is with those people.
You've led in Japan, and you've led stateside. How are these the same from one another and in what ways are they different?
That's the core of where my career has been in the last 20 years or so. I was in Japan for 16 years, so I have a pretty good handle on the way that Japanese leadership systems work.
In many ways, it's always a mystery no matter how far you get in your career. In general, there's a perception that Japanese business is hierarchical. It's very top-down, and indifference is considered the norm. Think about it like this: You defer to people, you defer to superiors, and therefore, leaders can theoretically rule like dictators in some cases.
In the U.S., on the other hand, it's flatter, and questioning is the norm. There's no one-size-fits-all solution for either side. In Japan, deference is important, but knowing how to build consensus is even more important. Developing solutions collectively is much more important there than it is, at least in my experience in the U.S.
Building consensus and relationships in Japan takes a lot more time, especially if you're coming in as an outsider. Because of this, devoting time to relationships is critical.
For American communicators working with clients in Japan, how do you recommend they get through that?
There's no easy answer except for time. Respect, time, trust building, delivering what you're supposed to, and being deferential are good starts.
I say deference, but I think what we really mean is working with respect, at least when we're back in the U.S. When you're working with the Japanese, I think it's just a stereotype. Typically, Americans and many Westerners tend to move forward boldly with big ideas.
I think it's a readiness gap in many ways. In Japanese culture, they will want to discuss and build consensus around anything before it happens. Sometimes, they've already decided before they get in the room.
All of us on the leadership journey have had moments that made us wince. Please share one of your worst leadership moments when you weren’t bringing your best, what you learned from it, and how you recovered.
This is a hard question for me because I've had a lot of bad moments, and frankly, so much to choose from as an employee and as somebody working in multiple cultures as a leader.
Once I had come out of Japan, I had this grand idea that I knew how to deal with leaders. I believed I knew how to deal with my teammates and everybody around me. When I say leadership, I'm referring to leadership from below as well as leadership from above.
When you're called in by a senior leader and they're asking you for advice, you have to lead that conversation. You have to be a leader in that moment. I was not accustomed to this when I returned to the States, so I thought deference was the way to go.
My first job back in the U.S. was with the American Institute, CPAs, a fantastic organization. There were 100,507 people in comms, and that was a lot of people involved in creative services.
I was in a senior position running a new project. We were creating a new designation for accountants called the Sigma, the chartered Global management accountant.
These projects are career makers and they're important.
The senior leader of the project was from the accounting world, and I was positioned to be her right-hand man. During my first meeting with her, I asked her, ‘Whenever you say this, what would you do?’ I thought she was she was fine with the question, but I learned later that she told my boss, ‘You know what? He doesn't speak his mind.’ This happened after several meetings.
I was already deep in the project, I was leading this global team, creating a new brand within this organization, and the person in charge thought I was a bullshitter; and it was because I took deference too far.
My boss at the time didn’t know what I was capable of because of this. In the end, I had to have intervention from my boss.
It probably harmed my career path for a little while. My colleague and one of my best compatriots in the world, Jonathan Cox, was like the golden child when it came to this particular leader, and I felt like I was in the doghouse. So I had this this situation where I was too deferential and felt like I was competing with my colleagues. It was a miserable nightmare for me, and it got into this spiral.
My takeaway: I had to learn how to manage the risk and the anxiety in my own mind so that I could express an opinion to my leaders. I’ll tell you, it took me years to get there.
Even now, it takes effort and self-awareness to overcome my tendency to be overly deferential. We didn't call it this back then, but it is part of emotional intelligence, which is to sense what's going on, to sense when it's anxiety or a fear stemming from a lack of confidence in any of the above.
This was some 15 years ago and a lot has changed since then in the world and in my own life. I've had some even further downs than that. It was only later that I learned of anxiety and depression, what it can do to you, and how it can be exacerbated by the environment you’re in.
Knowing more about yourself and these things can really change the game.
What's your life mission?
I think I've been able to crystallize my mission a little more. I'm a super curious person, and my mission would be to discover great stories and bring them to life and to people. It just so happens I’m a talker, and I love conversation.
So, I want to uplift people's lives in some way by having enriching conversations, asking the right questions, and showcasing that we humans are fascinating. With the advent of AI, people think that humanity is going away, but I think that we can be more human and humans are going to have a lot to do.
Frankly, I've also been very affected by world events lately. After the terrorist attacks that happened in Israel, I remembered that I’m Jewish. Before these events, it hadn’t been the strongest part of my identity, and now it is again.
I think that's part of my mission now. To use those platforms, to use those delightful conversations, and my social connections, to fight antisemitism. That's one of the things that I'm getting more and more passionate about, and I hope that I continue along that path because I think it's a righteous one.
Ken Jacobs is the principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching, which empowers PR and communications leaders and executives to breakthrough results via executive coaching, and helps communications agencies achieve their business development, profitability, and client service goals, via consulting and training. You can find him at www.jacobscomm.com, [email protected] @KensViews, or on LinkedIn.