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Bossing It: Greg Assémat Tessandier on Doing Cool Stuff with Smart People for Great Brands


Elephant president on how culture eats strategy for breakfast and how he learns every day

Bossing It: Greg Assémat Tessandier on Doing Cool Stuff with Smart People for Great Brands

As president of Elephant, Greg Assémat Tessandier partners with his clients and inspires his team to leverage creativity as a growth driver. Under his leadership, the agency has created transformative work for Goldman Sachs, Apple, NBCUniversal, Comcast and Yahoo.

He is a key driver of Elephant’s DEI strategy, “Commit to Change,” pushing diversity across all recruitment efforts, promoting women to leadership positions and engaging in pro-bono partnership with nonprofit organizations.

Previously, Greg led marketing teams client-side as the Global Head of Digital at Bacardi Global Brands, and has worked for top creative agencies including TBWA\Paris and Edelman Europe.

Greg is an active member of Surfrider Foundation and currently lives in Brooklyn, with his family and Maurice, their English bulldog.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Greg> If you’ll oblige me for two minutes, I’d like to make a distinction between the experience of leadership and having a title that identifies you as a leader. 

I don’t think leadership is a position or a title. Leadership is a conscious behaviour that shapes how you decide to interact with others.

In that context, here’s an example. Not the first one, but a good one nevertheless:

March 13th 2020. On that date, a suspected case of Covid-19 in our building was brought to my attention. I gathered all our employees in the lounge, told them about the situation and asked everyone to go back home, with their laptops - that the office would be closed for a one or two weeks, tops. 

In less than five minutes, close to 100 people were out. A few of us stayed behind to get the office sorted and ready to be closed. Of course, we were anxious. The unknown around the virus drove a lot of internal “what-ifs.” Yet, there was a feeling that none of us could leave anyone behind - a sense of shared responsibility and camaraderie. An over-dramatized (I mean we do work in advertising, no?) image would be a captain and his crew leaving a sinking ship. Last. 

Each one of us, in this moment, exercised on the core definition of leadership. I would call it an experience of collective leadership. 

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?

Greg> In many ways, I am still figuring out what kind of leader I want to be. Not set in my own ways. Once I started leading teams, I thought about the fundamentals that were critical to me. What gave me the most joy and passion in the job: building a great crew and culture, creating awesome, innovative work and growing the business. Yes, more or less in that order.

To some extent, it is easier than not to find who you do not want to be. Just look around. Easy to spot the behaviours that don’t sit right. For me personally, I always had challenges with leaders that are essentially managers of the status quo. No appetite for change. A vision summarized in managing the day to day. Steadily. Slowly. Ticking boxes. Finding the compromise. Always. Mostly reactive to situations as they arose. Neither good for the work. Nor for the people doing the work.

Really, they are more managers of the business than business leaders.

I guess the kind of leader you are, is more about the values that you are unwilling to compromise - whatever happens. Trust me, or don’t, but these will be tested. They will stand in the way of a decision you need to make “for the business.” Those three keywords justify so many things. I try to limit using them as much as possible. 

I also found that my leadership style evolves and adapts to the agencies and culture I am in. Be a sponge. Literally. Don’t be a good listener. Be a great one. Listen to everything. At the office. In the tube, the subway or the metro. At the pub, the café or the bar. Suck it all in. 

To create a great culture, you’ve got to capture the one you’re in.

LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?

Greg> I had the pleasure to lead teams and agencies in Paris, London and New York. It’s fascinating how different the job was. Each city obviously has its own culture. And each agency was pretty different, from Creative to PR to Product & Services. This forced me to flex and adapt. Each place influenced my style, my delivery and the ways to engage with my team and our clients. I started looking at leadership as a context versus an absolute.

LBB> Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?

Greg> Absolutely not. I just wanted to do cool stuff with smart people for great brands. Or was it, do great stuff with cool people for smart brands?

To be honest, I really worked my *** off. Weekends, nights. I did not care. I started in the accounting department of a digital agency as an intern. No kids, no responsibilities – work came first. 

Looking at it, and after 18 months stuck working from home slash living at work, I do realize that there had to be a better way. The old mantra of ‘work hard, play hard’ is exactly that, old. We have to work better and create opportunities for our teams and future leaders to manage their time, their priorities, and their personal life in a balanced and healthy way. 

This whole pandemic really shone a light on the mental health challenges that are deeply entrenched in our industry. 

LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?

Greg> The leader archetype! This loud, strong personality. Perfect delivery. Speaks well. Holds well. Square jaw. Broad shoulders. You know, the captain of the football team. 

So. Very much. Completely. Antiquated. 

Leaders come in various shapes and forms. And that’s great!

I think the whole nurture vs nature is an interesting one. Yet, my focus is really not how predisposed I was or not to become a leader, but how I perpetually strive to become a better one. 

The best leaders I’ve met all had this in common. Always learning. Always progressing. Never settling.

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

Greg> Personally challenging? DEI. One of the biggest challenges that has emerged in the past couple of years for leaders. Clearly, it is now a core component and expectation in leaders’ performance. 

I was lucky enough to be brought up in a very global environment, and travelled extensively. My wife is Filipina. My kids are mixed race. Let’s say that integrating DEI at the core of what we do is more than extremely important to me. It’s personal. 

I have been challenged as a person and as a leader. As a person, going on a journey to learn, educate and listen, to better understand some of the dynamics (historical, racial, societal) and to identify my own personal biases (conscious and unconscious).

As a leader, teaming up with the ELT, we’ve put a lot of focus on having a set of programs, trainings, and support resources for all of us to educate ourselves and drive change individually and collectively. We also made a strong commitment that DEI will greatly influence our leaders’ yearly performance, myself included. We are now being judged on our business results and impact on DEI.

LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?

Greg> I fail every day. And I’m totally fine with it. And I learn and grow every day from these mistakes.

The best thing I’ve learned? Failure is personal. Success is collective. Once you get that, you’re good.

LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?

Greg> I don’t think being careful and considered means being inauthentic. Nor does being open and transparent mean you’re necessarily being genuine.

It’s a simple question that needs to be answered: What do you need to share to create a sense of shared journey and commitment?

Transparency is in the eye of the beholder. It doesn’t really exist on its own but manifests itself differently for the people that care or pay attention. 

Every Friday, we have an agency meeting with our staff. Everyone comes. Now it’s on Zoom, but that’s cool. We talk about everything that the agency has gone through during the week and what’s coming up. Clients. The work, New Business. Ops. The wins and the losses. 

I believe we have to talk about the good and the not so good. This creates trust. Which is good for culture - much better than breakfast burritos or kombucha on tap. And foosball tables. I mean foosball tables, really?

LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?

Greg> I wish I had a good story, with a great mentor… but not really. I had great bosses that I learned a lot from. But that’s kind of it.

As much as I can, I try to take the time to mentor future leaders. Like everything else, I approach this relationship with an all-in mentality. A lot of time, a lot of discussions, setting up the right growth platform for them with a lot of breathing space to let them operate and grow.

LBB> It's been a really challenging year - and that's an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?

Greg> Honestly? My team! I am so proud of what they've achieved in these unprecedented times. I look at them, at their growth, their successes, personal and professional, at the things we’ve created together. The range and variety are amazing. Designing the streaming service of NBCUniversal, creating an AI driven conversational interface for Benjamin Moore, transforming Xfinity Stores into digital playgrounds or a campaign celebrating masturbation month for KY! I mean…!

This year has seen the industry confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?

Well, I should have read all the questions before. Refer to the biggest challenge question.

LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely in 2020?

Greg> Rhetorical question. Culture trumps everything. Like Drucker said (I think?) - Culture eats strategy for breakfast. 

Simply put, a creative agency is a bunch of very different, yet talented, people thrown together to solve complex challenges with unsuspected solutions. The way these talents interact with each other is driven by culture. Not process. Process is a by-product of what you want to make. Not how you want to make it. Culture is the how.

It’s been hard. We’ve tried many different things. None have worked perfectly, but the effort itself is appreciated by everyone. One that I feel worked well for us was carving space to break the ‘Zoomania.’ Time to think. To breathe. To work and focus.

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

Greg> Everything. Opportunities to grow and learn are everywhere. My wife, kids, peers, friends, family, politics, people. Law & Order, HBR, NYTimes, Le Monde, The Guardian…

Everything, but business biographies. I always sleep through them. 

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