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Bossing It: Why Jeff Stelmach Says Leadership “Means Owning the Good and the Bad”

Bossing It 532 Add to collection

Spiro’s global president of brand experiences on refusing to return to the ‘old normal’, being fortunate to have had several terrible bosses and how it's your reaction to your failures that matter most

Bossing It: Why Jeff Stelmach Says Leadership “Means Owning the Good and the Bad”


As global president of brand experiences for Spiro, Jeff Stelmach draws upon three decades of experience representing some of the globe’s most recognisable names, businesses, and brands. One of the only two professionals worldwide to secure the coveted Grand Ex Award for ‘Best Experiential Marketing Campaign’ - not once, but twice - Jeff has established himself both a visionary industry leader and a trusted, reliable resource and consultant for today’s top-tier brands. Before signing on with GES to lead the ‘Go To Market’ for Spiro, Jeff honed his skills and rose through the ranks of some of today’s best-known ad agencies, including Mosaic North America, Opus Agency and Geometry Global (now VMLY&R Commerce), among others. 

His portfolio features the likes of Samsung, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Anheuser-Busch InBev and Intel, among other major names, and he has racked up an impressive array of awards along the way, including multiple Event Marketer Ex and Association of National Advertisers REGGIE awards for excellence. Committed to helping brands and businesses make a successful return to live industry events, Jeff focuses his efforts on creating immersive, experiential opportunities that evoke emotion, encourage brand loyalty and increase engagement between businesses and key audiences.



LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Jeff> My first experience with leadership probably came as a child on the playground. I was always organising the games and setting up the teams. But come to think of it, that was probably more about being bossy than it was true leadership. My first experience with leadership that most closely resembles what I do today came when I was attending my University. I took a class where I was assigned as ‘president’ of an ‘agency’. I was responsible to assign other students’ roles, along with ensuring the agency developed a product and built a complete marketing plan and advertising campaign. Your grade was determined solely based on your end-of-class pitch to the professor and two ‘consultants’ from a top advertising agency. I learned that simply being assigned a title has no correlation to anyone following your direction, especially if they were your peers 10 minutes earlier that day. Put simply, you can be assigned the role of leader, but you have to earn the right to lead.


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?

Jeff> I have been fortunate to have had several terrible bosses. From those ‘bad’ bosses, I learned the things I didn’t want to do when I was promoted to lead others. In addition, they helped me to appreciate and respect the behaviours of my better leaders. The bad ones treated their employees as if they were there to serve them, do their bidding and follow their orders, often without offering much encouragement or appreciation. Whereas, the good leaders were there to help their employees, remove obstacles, and work together to get the job done. Today that’s called service-based leadership, and it was the type I responded to most favourably, so it became the basis for my leadership style.

 

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

Jeff> Oddly enough, it came when an agency I worked for lost its biggest client. It was a devastating loss and I was assigned to lead the transition of the business to the new agency. The client’s program involved millions of pieces of inventory, thousands of venue contracts, hundreds of employees, and dozens of field offices and warehouses. The program needed to transition without interruption or missing one of its 1,000+ annual events. It was at this moment I learned to manage in crisis and through adversity. I had to pivot the anger and disappointment of those employees who were, without doubt, going to lose their jobs, to taking pride in transitioning the program with excellence. To do that I knew my job couldn’t be done from the agency HQ. I got on the road and became one of the team, taping boxes, organising contracts, sweeping warehouses, and troubleshooting the hardest issues. By adopting a ‘no job is too small’ attitude, giving clear and frequent communication, and demonstrating genuine appreciation for all the team members, I held the program together. I was able to help secure new positions for many of my employees with the new agency and was even offered a job by the client. 

 

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?

Jeff> I can honestly say I have always been ambitious. Early in my career, managers used to request a five-year plan as part of your annual review process. I would write my five-year plan knowing it outlined a reasonably aggressive career path my manager would accept - but in my mind, that plan needed to be accomplished in two to three years or I was falling behind. I wouldn’t call this type of self-pressure healthy, nor would I guide my own children to think this way, but it ultimately directed me to ask the question: ‘what can I do to be just a little bit better?’. Early in my career that translated to taking on incremental projects like asking to go to a conference and write a report to share with the agency, or identifying new processes that could increase efficiency.  As I became a manager, my being just a little bit better was achieved by helping my people become just a little bit better. So becoming a service-based leader, focused on my employees, ultimately allowed each one of them to do their job just a little bit better.  


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

Jeff> Anyone can learn leadership skills and apply theories and tactics to be a good leader, but a great leader (not that I’m one), in my opinion, needs equal parts of skill and empathy. A genuine interest in the betterment of others can’t be taught in a book or a webinar on leadership. 

 

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

Jeff> By far the hardest part of leadership for me is dealing with conflict. The more senior you get, the more experienced the people you lead will be. If those people are any good, they will have strong opinions that don’t always fall in line with mine or others on the team. Someone is going to have to give. I find the best way to determine what direction to take when there is conflict, is to have a clear goal and vision that all my direct reports agree to. Once that’s established, I can use it as the basis to make well-informed decisions to resolve conflict. My team knows that I will listen and take advice, but ultimately the direction on the path to take will be mine and we may agree to disagree. It’s important we all get behind the decision and keep moving forward. It helps that I’m willing to appreciate other points of view, and even be the one to give in at times and change course if it’s the best decision for the business and our people.


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?

Jeff> I have failed many times while in charge. From leading and losing pitches, making wrong hires that I was sure were right, to waiting too long to address an issue because I was ‘busy’ with other priorities. If you put yourself out over your skis, you’re going to wipe out occasionally. Ultimately, it’s not that you failed, but how you react to your failures that matters most. When I’ve failed, I give myself a bit of time to build some objectivity to the situation. Then, I carefully review the event and determine what could have been done differently to deliver a better outcome. I’ve found the most important thing you can do in this process is to not blame others. I don’t like when employees let me know something has gone wrong, but it’s everyone’s fault but theirs. If you lead, that means owning the good and the bad. Once you identify actions you don’t want to repeat, share those with the team. And if there is an employee that needs additional coaching, pull them aside and have an honest conversation about how they can improve next time.


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?

Jeff> Leadership can carry some very heavy burdens - that is just part of the role. It is an art, not a science to know how much to share and when to share it. However, my stress is my responsibility and not my team’s. I share information that is needed to understand requests and deliverables because no one wants to work in the dark. I even let people know when something is keeping me up at night so they understand why I may put pressure on a particular delivery timeline. Hey, I’m human and sometimes I need things resolved so I can move on; but I don’t believe in being a stress dumper as a way of showing you are authentic, a real person, or how hard your job is.


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?

Jeff> Early in my career I joined a mid-sized agency and the president of that shop was just an incredible person. This was back in the nineties when there was a management theory called ‘Management by Walking Around’. The president did just that, every day he would walk around the office and stop to ask employees about what they were working on, their family, or their plans for the weekend. I was a junior account manager and according to even the flattest of organisational structures I should not have had exposure to the president of the agency - but I did and I loved it. 

We have stayed friends for over 30 years and I have leaned on him for advice the entire time. While I can’t walk around to engage with employees in today’s remote work environment, I still try to connect with people in a casual fashion. One example is I do listening calls. In these calls - I invite eight to ten employees to come together for 30 minutes and, as a group, answer three questions that were sent out in advance. Anyone can share their thoughts or build on anyone’s answer. Two of the questions are always about a current topic in the agency I want to understand the employees’ POV on and one is just for fun, like: ‘what Netflix show should I binge over the weekend?’.

 

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?

Jeff> Remote work, resource strain, financial belt-tightening and overwhelming uncertainty created stress and anxiety for everyone. Those challenges were compounded by limiting our most effective coping mechanisms – in-person teamwork and co-worker support. I learned how much we all rely on each other physically and emotionally and that there was an actual mourning process that people needed to go through as they simultaneously adapted to remote work relationships, as well as the demand to evolve our service to virtual engagements. 

Ultimately, we have all been forever changed by the past few years, personally and professionally. I believe that we need to acknowledge that fact and understand what it means to our employees and our industry going forward. The worst thing you could do is lead the same way you did in 2019 and pretend we are going to go back to normal. The word normal alone implies a sense of complacency that ignores all we just went through. At Spiro, we have embraced the fact that significant change will be our only constant and we are focused on building an agency and leading our employees to work in the ‘new now’. Because ultimately, all we have is ‘now’ - and ‘now’ is always evolving.

 

LBB> What are some ambitions and plans you have for Spiro and yourself in the coming year? 

Jeff> We have recently launched Spiro, part of the GES Collective. Spiro is the evolution of GES’ legacy marketing services for the ‘new now’. Spiro’s evolution involves maintaining the excellence of what we have always done so well, while adding tools and capabilities many of our current and future clients want and need. At this moment in time, it would be easy to play it safe and focus on returning to normal. Spiro is doing just the opposite. We are ambitiously embracing the future and creating the agency that will lead our industry forward.  

 

LBB> You have an impressive resume of experience in creative agencies across America - what have you noticed as the biggest changes in the industry during your time thus far? And do you have any predictions for 2022 trends or themes? 

Jeff> The industry often discusses hybrid, IRL, URL, Omnichannel, etc. Spiro understands we now effortlessly toggle between digital and physical. We live in a new space, the ‘in-between’ - and we have to embrace it. In the new now, we are together and remote, we are asynchronous and live and it’s what we call ‘All Real Life–ARL’. We can engage with experiences regardless of the time, place, space, and medium we choose to participate from. For Spiro, it’s ‘ARL’ and it’s all good! This is what it means to be… there! We believe and embrace that medium-and-channel-agnostic ways of working are here to stay. We are not waiting for an ‘old normal’ to return or looking at hybrid event execution as an inconvenience. It is a way to meet our clients and their customers where they are, and it offers a new set of monetisation possibilities and approaches. This is the future.

 

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

Jeff> It’s essential. Purpose and culture together fuel the engine that drives the growth of an organisation, and more importantly, of its people. Spiro has developed five ‘Core Values’: 1) Lead with Creativity, 2) Be Authentically You, 3) Fun Thrives Here, 4) Inspire and Be Inspired, and 5) Better Together. These values provide a guide on the type of environment and experiences we want our team members to have together.  


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

Jeff> Back in the day, I would buy management and business leadership books in the airport and used my flights to read and learn. Now, I work on flights and my time to sit with a book has dwindled significantly. So today I am a podcast junkie. If you see me walking the dogs, shopping, waiting for a plane, or just about any time I’m not talking with someone else, I have my earbuds in. And those earbuds are playing a variety of podcasts. Some help me relax, others inspire me personally and professionally. One of my favourites is TED Radio Hour. So many amazing speakers and topics. There is a nugget of inspiration in every episode.



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Spiro, Part of the GES Collective, Tue, 26 Apr 2022 16:41:00 GMT