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EP 24: What is Compassionate Management, with Rena DeLevie

On this episode of THRIVE—now sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly is joined by Rena DeLevie of Management for Millennials to discuss what she calls Compassionate Management. They talk about the great divide between account managers and creatives—and how to find common ground in order to operate a more effective agency and improve overall culture.
 
 
 

TRANSCRIPT

EP 24: What is Compassionate Management, with Rena DeLevie

Duration: 00:22:38

 

Kelly:  Hey it’s Kelly.

Before we dive into today’s show, I have some really exciting news to share with you. THRIVE is brought to you now by Workamajig. If you’ve never heard of Workamajig or have no idea what it is or what it does, let me tell you.

So Workamajig is the #1 creative agency management software and what that means is, I’m probably betting that you’ve got a bunch of different pieces of disparate software. So something for your time tracking, something for project management, your CRM system, accountinginvoicing, estimating, you probably have some excel spreadsheets floating around somewhere, we all did right?

At some point in owning our agency things got a little messy, so Workamajig solves that problem by centralizing everything across the entire operations of a creative agency so that there’s transparency, there’s higher profitability, and it really just creates a more productive and just overall healthier environment for an agency.

So, if you’re considering at all centralizing some of the systems that you have all over the place right now, you might be interested in a demo of Workamajig so you can check that out at thrive.workamajig.com that’s also where a lot of the show notes will be and all of the episodes from here on in. There will also be at agencyscaler.com, but if you’re interested in a demo and you want to learn a little bit more about the software itself check it out thrive.workamajig.com, let’s dive into the show.

So what is compassionate management? Today I’m really excited to have Rena DeLevie on the show. She’s the founder of Management for Millennials, she’s a Ted X presenter and she also has a brand new book called “Compassionate Management: How Ambitious Creatives Become Kick-Ass Leaders”. There’s the book, awesome!

Rena, so good to have you on the show today, thanks for joining me.

 

Rena:  I’m so excited to be here, and congratulations on the sponsorship. Workamajig, I know from my own experience, is an awesome product and Ron the owner is just a honey of a man and I’m really excited for you.

 

Kelly:  Thank you so much. We’re, actually both parties, are super excited I think it’s such an ideal fit on both sides and they’re really an incredible partner because I think they really embrace the fact that these are organic and really valuable conversations, and they just really allowed me to have that creative freedom so I’m really excited about it too, and thank you for that.

So let’s dive in!

 

Rena:  Alright.

 

Kelly:  I think, I’ve obviously heard your story before and seen the Ted X talk, but I think it will be really helpful for the agency leaders who are watching and listening to get that foundation and really understand what led you to this concept of compassionate management.

 

Rena:  Right, sort of an oxymoron.

 

Kelly:  Yes!

 

Rena:  A lot of people feel the compassion has no place in the office and that it’s sort of kumbaya, crystals group hug. Which it can be at times but it’s not appropriate in the workplace setting so in the workplace it’s a co-existing truth which is one of the tools I teach, which is compassion and accountability, because you still need to get stuff done. The reason I created compassionate management was because I was pooped on for about 20 years, with what I call fear-based management. I don’t think I created the term fear-based management, but I really don’t know.

 What I do know is when I used that phrase with pretty much anybody in any industry, they go “Oh my god, that’s what I’ve been experiencing! on the sort of threatening, favoritism, you know the ugly behavior that’s in most offices. And with creatives in particular because I am one, I went to art school, I have a BFA, Graphic design Art Direction, I was an Art Director in Advertising and then Graphic Design in retail for the most part Fashion Retail and then I moved into managementand once I was in the position of management I was very effective at getting stuff done.

 And I realized after 9-11 happened, I sort of I had just begun doing mindfulness meditation and mindfulness studying, some Buddhism and mindfulness, and I realized “oh my god!” if God forbid I had been on one of those planes, what would I be thinking like “yay I bullied people until I rose to the top you know? And I had this realization that I was kind of a bully and it’s so not natural for me to be a bully so I’ve been play-acting, because that’s what I had been taught that you needed to be, that certain way to succeed.

 

Kelly:  And in order to get people to get work done, right.

 

Rena:  And so, I mean I certainly responded when I was managed with fear, you know I was like “jump like a bunny”, “what do you need me to do? I’ll do it!” and that’s how I rose up the rank so after 9-11, I was sitting there mediating and I thought, which you know you try not to do when you’re meditating but it happens anyway, “Who do I want to be? Who do I want to be in this world?” Who knows how much time I have left, who do I want to be? And I decided, screw it! I’m just gonna show up fully as me. Which means, sensitive and empathetic and intense.

 So sensitive and empathetic, not really welcome in the work space. But I thought, what the heck I’m a creative, I’m 50 creative, 50 business brain and I’m just going to show up as me and see what happens and I remember the first time I approached someone in my team and I was managing about 80 people or so at the time, I was head of creative operations at a fashion retail company and it was tense because 9-11 happened, we were you know, down-sizing, whatever you want to call it and I walked up to someone and I said “How may I help you?” and they were like “What?!” because before I’d been like “Is it done?! Is it done?! And so, things started shiftingand we started to trust each other and they felt seen, heard and understood, which then meant that I could have my own experience and feel seen, heard and understood which is the universal desire.

 

Kelly:  Right!

 

Rena:  I don’t care what age, what ethnicity, what sexuality, what gender, what religion, name a category, we all want to be seen, heard and understood.

 

Kelly:  Human.

 

Rena:  Human. We don’t have to be agreed with, you don’t have to agree with me, I do want you to hear what I’m saying.

 

Kelly: Right.

 

Rena:  And then we can come to a compromise, then we can come to a solution. So the more I started to do this “How may I help you?” thing, that became one of my nicknames, which was so much nicer than my older nickname.

 

Kelly:  I don’t think we can say that in the show.

 

Rena:  And I was happier, I mean I was just plain happier in my life. And frankly, I got more out of the team. There was no question about it, it was much more productive. And so the culture began to shift in our department and the culture had already been a somewhat nurturing culture except after 9-11 it became cut-throat you know? Which is natural.

 

Kelly:  Right.

 

Rena:  So the question is can you maintain compassion for the other, even in times of stress? Because when it’s wonderful you’re like, “Oh yeah, I hear you.” “Oh yeah, that’s great!” When it becomes really tense you’re like, “I got to keep my job!” you know, and you get territorial. So, it was trial-by-fire of really, can I maintain this compassion for people and can I show them the way? And then I began codifying it and writing it down because I thought, this is really effective and I’m loving this. And because who I am in my deepest knowing is people and process, and the two have to work together simultaneously in order to have a most effective business. Whether it’s the business of your division within a huge company or the company itself. So yeah, that’s my spiel.

 

Kelly:  Yeah cool, and what you’re talking about is not just specific to an in-house team at a brand, it’s also for privately held agencies so there’s no difference.

 

Rena: Absolutely, especially. Because at a privately held agency there is that much more tension of losing the account, gaining that account, working extra hours, the pace is usually far more intense than an in-house department, absolutely.

 

Kelly:  Right. So what are some of the commonalities, like in your work with agencies, what are some of the common issues that you see between the creative teams, the account teams? What are some of the communication issues, I mean that could be a whole show in it of itself, but what are like let’s say, the top one or the top common issues that you see?

 

Rena:  So trust is screamingly urgent, because, and I’m going to stereo-type a little bit here.

 

Kelly:  That’s ok.

 

Rena:  The creative brain is quite an inner iterative brain. We go off, we are comfortable with abstract, we can live in the vague, and then take typography and color and space and make something happen. The account or project manager brain is much more linear. These are the iterative and the linear are what make people good at these jobs, these are their strengths. It also limits the ability, it’s two completely different languages. So how to connect and be able to communicate the abstract with somebody who probably doesn’t get abstract. While also, meeting the bottom line, pleasing the outside client who’s nephew’s niece wants to do the photography you know what I mean? Like, there’s all these layers of agenda going on.

 

Kelly:  “I asked my wife and she said make the logo bigger!” That is my favorite one ever.

 

Rena:  Right, exactly, right, yeah! Now I remember being an Art Director and literally, the client said, “My nephew wants to do the photography,” and we all were like, “Ok.” You know, we couldn’t even say, “did your nephew even study photography?” you know? “Is he going to use a real camera?” There was no option, this was a huge agency. There was a lot of sucking it up in a way, at the same time, who wants to be grumpy all day long at the office? Again, that trust comes from, I’m going to say it again, being seen, and heard, and understood. So what I’ve seen happen, can I go into some examples?

 

Kelly:  Absolutely.

 

Rena:  Ok, so what I’ve seen happen is, the idea of compassionate management is not to replace your entire culture and your whole approach to management. It layers into what you already have and it is a series of 10 tools that you already have, everybody has it. It’s just it’s inside you, you’re just not really, perhaps in touch with each of them. So it’s not rocket science, you can read a little bit and just start trying it. And so the idea is once people started to pay attention to the idea that even that jerk in account management who’s always pushing me to make it purple, has an agenda.

And it’s not just an agenda to make sure that the mortgage is paid, that he keeps his job, but also he really wants to do good work and to stay on strategy you know, purple is the royal color, you know whatever they’re thinking. So, once they started really trying out the methodology and weaving it into what they were doing, it’s got a hint of Buddhism without being any sort of cultish thing of “take that pause”, just pause, and in Buddhism it’s called the Buddhist pause where you just. Huh… What’s she going through? Why is she reacting so strongly to this? How can I not take this personally?

 

Kelly:  What’s driving that decision?

 

Rena:  That’s right. Because with creatives, we almost, I would say, pretty much never get management training. We are taught how to design, how to take the abstract and make it tangibleyou know all of that, and it’s wonderful, and we love it, but then we thrust into an office and how many of us, myself included, were promoted because you did a good job. And then suddenly you’re responsible for all these other creative, and you’re like, “uh, I don’t know how to handle it.”

And then you have to give interpersonal feedback and creative feedback. Terrifying, I can’t tell you how many times I messed up on creative feedback and interpersonal, but creative because I, in the beginning, would thrust my own agenda. And that’s the opposite of what you need to do, you’re out of it. Is it on strategy? And so, learning the idea of not taking it personally and really making sure the other person feels seen, is the key.

 

Kelly:  Right, ok. So do you want to go into sharing a specific example where you saw a dramatic impact of your consulting work with a particular manager or particular agency or something like that?

 

Rena:  Sure. So one very exciting example was, the COO brought me in and said, “look, we’ve got these two managers, they’re so talented, but they cannot get out of their own way, you got to do something with them, because they’re flailing. And I don’t want to have to fire them, but we got to do something, because they’re flailing and I don’t want to have to fire them, but we gotta do something.So I said, “ok, how big is the team?” and he said it’s about 20 people, and I said, “alright, so we don’t want to highlight that these two are going to have management coaching. So I recommend that I come in for 6 hours, one day a week, you stick me in an office or closet, a cloffice as it were, and for one hour, after an hour for six hours I will coach six different people and you can announce it as anybody can go but these two people know that they have to go."

 

Kelly:  But nobody else knows that.

 

Rena:  Nobody else knew that. So this happened every week, and it was cross-departmental, so it was creative, it was account, it was product, because two people signed up regularly every week and other people just kept signing up. So I basically ended up coaching almost, well I would say the entire, I mean even the CEO at times was like “Can I talk to you?” And so, coaching this cross-departmental, cross-function, cross-age, cross-gender, cross everything, I mean cross everything I can’t think of anything that wasn’t included.

After about, I’d say 3 months, because I ended up being there for about two-and-a-half years, but after about 3 months, it was this, people started collaborating, they started talking more, there had been yelling and stomping out, and storming, and all of that. I mean if you think about it stereotypically, and I include myself in this, creatives, we’re passionate folk, and we take things seriously, and we take it to heart, and we can get a little feisty, you know? We’re sensitive, which is one of our greatest gifts; it’s what enables to do the good work that we do.

So, things kind of started to simmer and balance, and that’s why they kept me on, they were like, “listen, this is going great, and the company is growing, we want to keep growing, we want to hire more, we want to add more, we want you to stay and keep…” So it evolved over time to become this seriously collaborative environment. Of course there were still moments where a client would do something that would make people unhappy, and then they’d get a little back-stabby, and then it would be the day I come in and we would talk about it and we would address it from all different perspectives.

And while I never said, “Well Susie said half an hour ago,” I did help each person see the other people’s agendas. And as an outside consultant, there’s this inherent accountability because I’m not the boss, so I don’t have my own agenda at heart. Because when I was a boss, there’s no question, as much as I could try to manage with compassion, I also had my own agenda which was to keep my job, and so that’s a very natural and appropriate experience. The coaching doesn’t replace the management’s managy relationship, it’s this added support and objective accountability.

 

Kelly:  Ok, now for the agency leaders who are watching or listening that have pretty serious issues when it comes to this, all the things that you’ve kind of touched upon throughout our conversation today, and that’s leading directly to loss of profit, how can they begin to think a little bit differently, like what would they need to do to start just reimagining this concept of compassionate management?

 

Rena:  The fastest way to do it is to go home, think about who you really want to be and then show up fully and if your immediate thought is, “well that would never really fly in my company,” then you really have to think it through, because what’s happening now is not flying. So something’s got to give, so what is it going to be, and if it’s going to be you really taking a chance and going for it, then go for it and really show up.

One thing I really want to say is, when I say “show up,” I mean with compassion and accountability. So something’s due tomorrow at 3 right? So today you go over you say, “Hey, do you have everything you need to get this done by 3 o’clock tomorrow?” You see my tone of voice, the look on my face, my body language, I’m not going, “Are you going to have it?” and I’m not going, “You’re going to have it right?!!” So, right in the middle is “Hey, do you have everything you need to get it done by 3 o’clock tomorrow?”. There’s the compassion and the accountability. “No, I don’t, I still never got the copy.” “Let me get that for you”.

Next time it would be great if we could talk about that, if you could come to me in advancebecause then I could have more time to get it. I’m on it”. Now, if that happened and you get the information and you say, “Do you have everything you need, it’s going to be done by 3, fabulous”. Now if it’s not done by 3, then you’ve got a bigger issue, then you dive more deeply into it. But it’s the same approach even through coaching and counseling, what’s actually going on here? “You said if I got you the copy you’d have it done by 3, what’s actually going on here?” In other words the threat is I want to actually see what’s going on with you, I want to actually understand what’s going on here. Not to the point where you’re going to tell me about your boyfriend or your girlfriend or your…

 

Kelly:  Right, there’s still a line, yeah.

 

Rena:  It’s inappropriate, we’re talking about work; this is a work related appropriate conversation. What’s going on here? With the coaching and counseling I really want to emphasize, the coaching and the counseling, and this is something you can say outright verbatim to your employees, or your staff or your team, whatever language you choose.

 

Kelly:  I like team.

 

Rena:  I do also. This feedback, is to help you succeed in this job, in this company, right now. This is not about changing who you are. You are who you are, and you need to get it done when the deadline is. That’s not negotiable.

 

Kelly:  Right.

 

Rena:  So you see, it’s a separation from the personal to the, this is about work. But when people say “it’s not personal, it's business, just get it done they think that business means being a jerk, and personal means being nice. It’s inaccurate.

 

Kelly:  Right, there’s a happy medium it doesn’t have to be a dichotomy.

 

Rena:  That’s right.

 

Kelly:  Well, this has been a really interesting and engaging conversation, I’m going to post all the links to your website and certainly where people can find the book online as well, and I just really want to thank you for joining me today, it was great!

 

Rena:  Thank you so much Kelly, love your show!

 

Kelly:  Alright talk soon, bye!

 

Rena:  Bye.

 

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Kelly Campbell Bio

Kelly Campbell is an Agency Growth Consultant based in New York. A former digital agency owner for 15 years, she helps creative and tech agencies transform—by focusing on people, positioning, pipeline and profitability. Kelly is also an IA/SEO consultant to Facebook and NASA. She writes for Website Magazine, speaks at digital marketing and agency growth conferences across the U.S., and has been featured in The New York Times, Woman Entrepreneur and Forbes. She is the host of THRIVE: Your Agency Resource, a bi-weekly video podcast sponsored by Workamajig that helps agency owners navigate growth.

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