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Bossing It: Finding Leadership Advice Treasures in Vulnerability with Kelly Stevens


New York agency Lanfranco&Cordova’s first managing director Kelly Stevens on why honesty is paramount as a leader, her plans for L&C in 2022 and why a company’s culture affects the work it makes

Bossing It: Finding Leadership Advice Treasures in Vulnerability with Kelly Stevens

Recently, the fast-growing creative agency L&C New York hired Kelly Stevens as a new senior leadership partner to serve as the agency’s first managing director. In the newly-created role, she will be responsible for guiding marketing and management of the agency as it grows. Kelly brings solid marketing and brand management experience to L&C, most recently as managing director at Spring Studio New York, where she led the successful pitch and development of TikTok’s B2B campaign celebrating the most breakthrough CMOs on the platform in 2021. Prior to that, she held CMO positions at YARD NYC and The&Partnership, was brand director at FIG, spent seven years at Omnicom’s Merkley+Partners New York leading brand and retail communications for Mercedes-Benz and served in account positions at Team One, Y&R, Ogilvy and TBWA\Chiat Day

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership? 

Kelly> At the core of leadership is making difficult decisions on behalf of the organisation - and then executing those decisions. The first time I recall doing this was at an ANA conference a few years back. My CEO had a presentation to give the next morning, but having sat through the rest of the presentations the day prior, I felt we needed completely different content. I could have just let it go and just enjoyed a long dinner instead – nobody would have been the wiser. But after much debate, we stayed up all night to rewrite the entire presentation. 

LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be? 

Kelly> I’ve had good and not-so-good leaders throughout my career. You learn from both. A great leader is experienced, brave, humble and gives all of the credit to the people working for them. They make you feel inspired and protected, and that in turn makes you want to do your very best. When I joined one agency a few years back, it felt like a much bigger role and I was intimidated. My new boss told me everything that was expected of me and then followed it up with, ‘But we’re all here to support you and we won’t let you fail.’ To me, that quote captures the essence of a true leader. 

LBB> Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? How much of leadership is natural and how much can be learned?

Kelly> Starting out, I did not expect to take on a leadership role. I simply enjoyed doing the work. I realised I had it in me when I started working at smaller agencies in new business. You get really close to the challenges, decisions and decision-makers, and you become confident after enough experience that the most qualified person to make those decisions is you. There are both people who are born leaders, and people who learn to lead. The one thing I know for certain is that either way, there are no shortcuts – you need a fair amount of experience to be a great leader. Inexperienced leaders with too much confidence can be very destructive. 

LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them and learn from failures? 

Kelly> It’s difficult when you’ve identified something that needs to change but you can’t make the change right away for whatever reason – maybe there are people on the leadership team who disagree with you or maybe it’s not the right time. I’ve learned that sticking to my convictions is critical, even if it means causing friction. The friction will help to change the situation. When your role is leading new business pitches you feel like you fail a lot, because it’s part of the job. The best two ways to prevent failure are: 1) Pay attention to all of the details with great care, no matter how many times you think you’ve been in the situation before, and 2) Always, always trust your gut. 

LBB> Do you think it’s important to be as transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered? 

Kelly> Truth telling is one of the most important things we can do as leaders. It’s the only way issues can be addressed and circumstances improved. It can be uncomfortable but it’s the best thing you can do to help people grow. Great leaders deliver the truth in a compassionate, productive way. 

LBB> As you developed your leadership skills, did you have a mentor? And how would you approach mentorship yourself?

Kelly> Judith Carr-Rodriguez, CEO at FIG gave me my first job in business development. FIG was a few months old at the time, so very much in startup mode and I reported to her directly for two years. She has every quality and characteristic you would hope to find in a leader. Andrew Bailey, CEO at The&Partnership has also been an amazing mentor. He is decisive and fearless under pressure, and so incredibly supportive. For me, mentorship means behaving in a way that sets a good example. And those relationships naturally develop with ambitious people who respond to your leadership style. It’s not something that can be manufactured. 

LBB> It's been a really challenging few years - and that's an understatement. How do you lead a team out the other side of a difficult period? 

Kelly> It’s been critical to put a stake in the ground and be clear about what the agency stands for, what your plans are and what you expect of the team. You need a tight team of people who really want to be there, who are resourceful and will ride out the obstacles. And then of course, you recognise and reward them. 

LBB> What are some ambitions and plans you have for your new role as MD at L&C? 

Kelly> I am most excited about pioneering the way we hire and work with agency talent as we grow, giving people the freedom to live anywhere in the world and time to connect with other parts of their lives. This is such an important topic for the industry at large, but L&C was originally built for a borderless world so we have the luxury of not having to retrofit. We naturally have a diverse workforce that’s decentralised and an overseas production model that ensures both craft and efficiency. 

LBB> You have an impressive resume of experience in the industry from brand management to agency positions - what have you noticed as the biggest changes in the industry during your time thus far? 

Kelly> Thank you! The biggest change by far is that the industry was so white male-dominated throughout most of my career. It was a huge problem and everyone knew it for the longest time - and there were efforts to bring in new voices even 20+ years ago. But it wasn’t until all of culture changed recently with #metoo and BLM that our industry finally transformed fundamentally. 

LBB> And do you have any industry predictions for 2022? 

Kelly> In 2022, we’ll see a more consultatory agency model vs. full time. With agency teams decentralised and talent demanding autonomy, we’ll see the most sought-after talent working with more than one agency or company, and they will play the role of collaborator rather than full-time employee. It’s different from freelance in that these will be client-facing, ongoing relationships and their lack of allegiance to one company will be viewed as a benefit rather than a secret. This shift will help both the talent and the industry at large. 

LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? 

Kelly> Company culture is the lens through which you filter your talent and that becomes the basis for the types of client partners you attract and the work you ultimately create. There’s nothing more important than having the exact right team, especially at a small agency. Gian and Rolando are immigrants and that’s a very distinct mindset - it’s dreaming and optimism, integrity and bravery, hard work and doing more with less. That foundation is what yielded the growth and accolades in the first two years of L&C and is what will propel us as we go forward. 

LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey? 

Kelly> The most useful resources for me have been stories from other agency leaders. The best leaders share experiences where they were humbled, and it usually involves a bit of cringing and some good laughs. I look for the stories where people were vulnerable and that’s where I find the treasures.

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Lanfranco&Cordova, Thu, 07 Apr 2022 17:48:00 GMT