EP 68: Integrating Agency Leadership + Humanness, with Leslie Peters

Mar 26, 2020

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EP 68: Integrating Agency Leadership + Humanness, with Leslie Peters

On this episode of THRIVE—now sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly and Leslie Peters, author of Finding Time to Lead, discuss the importance of being human at inflection points where ambiguity and fear arise.

Episode 68 Links

Leslie Peters:
Book: Finding Time to Lead
iTunes / Apple Podcasts:
YouTube Channel:
Vimeo Channel:


 EP 68: Integrating Agency Leadership + Humanness

Duration: 20:41


Kelly: So welcome to this week’s episode of Thrive, your agency resource. I am really, really excited to have Leslie Peters on the show today—speaker, author, guide, all in the context of leadership development. We actually met at Owner Summit from Bureau of Digital just a few weeks ago in New Orleans. So that was super fun and I loved her talk and we chatted afterwards and I was like, you’ve got to come on the show. So Leslie here you are. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Leslie: Thanks! I’m really excited to be here.

Kelly: So you talked about this a little bit in your keynote but something that really resonated with me was that leadership isn’t something you do, it’s something you are, right? So you talked about how you show up and really why is that so much do you think on the minds of the agency leaders?

Leslie: Yes. So part of it is on the minds of agency leaders because they are the leaders. They are the bosses. And so, I think that sometimes particularly when maybe you didn’t set out to be the boss, some people go into it the gamut and be the boss. If you’re founder-owner, you’re like, I started doing my thing and now there are all these people and I could be the boss of all these people. Like I really didn’t sign on for that.

Kelly: Accidental management.

Leslie: Exactly. And so then, I think you get in this mindset of I have to do leadership today, like I have to do the boss thing. What does that mean to do the boss thing? And we’re make a list. We’re gonna do the boss things. And it’s actually in a way simpler and more complex than that, which is as the agency owner and leader at the top of the org chart like you have a lot of influence all the time. So every time you walk into a room, every time you’re in a meeting, every time you make a comment, people are like, whoa, paying really close attention.

Kelly: Yeah.

Leslie: And so, you’re leading all the time so it’s really someone you are. It’s about how you show up and not something you do because everything you do is leading and that is just about you personally.

Kelly: Yeah, totally. And what I also hear you saying like as the undercurrent of that is it’s actually a lot about self-awareness because if every comment, everything that’s coming out of your mouth, how you show up, when you show up, when you leave, like all of these things from all these different perspectives are essentially communicating something to that team, right? So like what are you communicating? It’s really being super self-aware of that.

Leslie: Exactly. And exactly to your point, you’re always communicating and so you can be intentional or unintentional about that. The self-awareness is about being intentional about that. What does the fact that I say to this person. If you always are, for example, reinforcing how quickly people get things done. Thank you for getting that done so quickly. People are just going to just try to move fast. That’s what they’re going to do because that’s what you reinforce. If you are also reinforcing I really appreciate you took some time with that and we’re very thorough about it, then people have freedom to do both of those things. But if all you reinforce is how fast people get things done, people will just keep speeding up. And maybe that’s what you want. That’s fine. Again, there’s an intentionality around it.

Kelly: Absolutely. And that’s sort of like what you’re talking about with that the feeding into or rewarding or praising that quickness. Right?

Leslie: Uh-huh.

Kelly: It’s also like unintentional culture development at the same time, right?

Leslie: Yes. It totally creates the narrative. I will often ask people sort of what’s the narrative, what do people talk about a lot, and if people are comparing the number of emails they have, right? Like I got 32 emails while we are sitting in this meeting. Well, I got 54 email.

Kelly: It’s like a competition.

Leslie: Exactly. You’ve now created this competitive around how busy everyone is.

Kelly: Right.

Leslie: And that is actually not helpful because then the winning, being successful is about how busy you are and how many emails you got as opposed to the thing you might really care about, the quality of the work or how many times you have a client into your capacity to sort of go deep on a project. And so, again one of the ways to think about this is to look for whatever the narratives, what do you hear people are saying very frequently.

Kelly: Yeah, that’s a great point. And I guess sort of ancillary to that, a lot of the work that I do is around scaling or it’s a component of what I do, where a lot of people who do leadership development or agency growth, do that. So scaling as you put it, it entails a lot of ambiguity and that ambiguity then leads to the creation of a lot of fear—fear among the team, fear among the leaders as well. So why is it so important to be human at those inflection points?

Leslie: Nice. Thanks for the question. Yes, so what happens when we scale and grow is a lot of change. We don’t know what things are gonna look like in the future. Sort of like we used to be 6 people and now we’re gonna be 15 people. And that’s really different and as things change and the ambiguity increases, our level of personal risk increases as well. Like I used to know the answer or I used to have this role. I knew the answer. I could get VA. I knew exactly what to do when I would do exactly that and feel really good about myself. And now, I have to do something really different and there’s a different scale and a different level of accountability. And so now, I’m really personally at risk. That’s scary. I don’t want to put myself out there because I might do something wrong. And so people starts to then like our limbic brains kick in, and we start to either fight or flight or freeze. We’re just like people get really stuck. I had an agency owner say to me, “Why does everybody keep asking me for my permission? Why don’t they just get their stuff done?” And it’s because they were scared.

Kelly: They’re scared.

Leslie: It’s that I want you to tell me that this is okay, that’s the time I can do it. And that’s by responding with that sense of humanness and really integrating that into the way that you are. So say to people, “It’s gonna be okay. You can do this. You can take this risk. Nothing terrible is gonna happen.” And then they start to build that muscle and they start to see, how they can start to really, I call it brave participation. Like actually step in and participate in what’s happening with a sense of courage, that you don’t get if you’re leader isn’t gonna take care of you at that level.

Kelly: Yeah, I love that. I’m definitely using that hashtag brave participation.

Leslie: Great.

Kelly: One of the things also that’s kind of coming up for me as you’re talking about it, is I see such a parallel between how you’re describing what the team is needing and raising a child. So in a lot of ways, the team members if they’re asking like, is this okay, am I doing it the right way, they’re looking at you, almost to like parent them in a way. So if you are the type of leader who is encouraging and empowering of their bravery as you put it, like that’s incredibly important for the success of the company and the scalability of it as well.

Leslie: Absolutely. Because what happens is as the ambiguity increases, there’s this inflection point that happens when we start moving into things that are unfamiliar. And so, we make a choice at that moment, each of us. Am I just gonna continue to do what I’ve always done and like secure myself in sort of familiar territory or am I going to really grow and expand and think differently about what’s coming. And the choice that we make right there is really important because what happens is if we’re in that new space, I now, I’m not as competent or confident as I was in the work that I was doing. So that’s gone and I’m feeling very exposed. The first thing I will do is I will disconnect. I will disconnect from the leader. I will disconnect from others. You can see in a culture in individuals when they’re feeling that, because they will do one of a couple of thing—they will either start to hoard the information coz they don’t want everyone to know that they don’t know what’s happening.

Kelly: Right.

Leslie: Right?

Kelly: Yeah.

Leslie: So they’ll do that. Or they’ll just to advocate. They’ll just start saying, I don’t know, ask someone to. And all the memos start to have like big CYA on them, got 15 people on this email because I am totally covering my you know what, because I don’t know if this is okay. And so, people start to disconnect and then you move into what I call “the pit of despair.” Everyone just starts complaining and being mad and feeling exposed and they fight each other and pretty soon you’ve sort of got this whole mass of people who are just whining and complaining and feeling bad and that’s a lot to clean up.

Kelly: Yes, it is.

Leslie: You can be human with people and help them feel okay in that ambiguity and start to show up, you don’t have to clean up all of that other stuff like that.

Kelly: Yet this is what you’re saying, sort of preventative medicine from needing to hire somebody like your eye.

Leslie: Exactly.

Kelly: So we actually want you guys to do this.

Leslie: Right. Exactly. Or yes, like think about it now. Get ready to do this so that we can come in and help you be even more successful as opposed to try to like clean everything up.

Kelly: Untangle.

Leslie: Yes.

Kelly: Yeah, untangle the bird’s nest, as I like to think about it.

Leslie: Oh I like that. Yeah.

Kelly: So we’re talking all about what actually happens in these situations but what are their perspectives or the skillsets that leaders really need in order to integrate this humanist that we’re calling it.

Leslie: Yeah, so I think that your point about self-awareness is one of the most important first steps like just to know sort of a little bit about who you are, when you can show up in ways that when your natural default mode is a helpful thing, and when it’s not. So that you can have some time to rethink if showing up as you would naturally show up maybe isn’t the most helpful thing right now. So self-awareness is the first thing. Also being aware of your own values, which I define as your decision about what’s important to you in life. You can be clear about that. You can start to see how those are showing up in your culture, either in a positive way or negative way. So that’s a really good piece of this self-awareness. The actual skillset, one of the things that I teach that is most valuable to people is just the idea of listening, sort of really deep listening to understand instead of listening to respond.

Kelly: My favorite phrase.

Leslie: Yes, exactly.

Kelly: My favorite, yeah.

Leslie: It’s so important and again simple but not easy. And so I teach a coaching class and one of my friends in the class said, “Oh, I really have to tame the fixer.” I said, yes. That’s a really good way to think about it, like not always fixing and solving but actually just listening.

Kelly: Yeah, it’s interesting because so many agency owners like start out as practitioners. So whether that’s design, creative, strategy, what have you. We’re sort of hardwired especially for founders/owners. We’re hardwired to be that practitioner, to be that problem-solver, to come up with the solutions to fix the problems. So it is really hard to sort of like unwire that or maybe it’s not so much on unwiring of it, like we don’t want you to change who you are because that’s a great skill set to how to be able to problem solve. Really, think quickly on your feet. However, there is that pause, that pause of like, wait a minute, if I’m listening to someone as they’re talking, a team member, a client, colleague, whoever it is, my business partner—if I’m listening and I catch myself already formulating what I’m going to say, cut it off, just pause.

Leslie: Exactly.

Kelly: Put that over there. You can always come back to it, still in your head, but like being really present with that conversation so that you take the time to understand not only what they’re saying but also more of what is not being said.

Leslie: Exactly. My example of this is I taught this, and then I had another class with the same group a couple of weeks later and this one came back and I call it epic listening. She came back and she said, “I got it! Epic listening. I got it, I got it!” I said, “Tell me what happened.” She said, “Well, I was in my office and one of my direct reports came in and he was just, flailing, he was like, they’re not getting their stuff done and they’re not getting their stuff done and we can’t get our stuff done and the school is ridiculous, and all of these things. And she said, “What I would have done before is as he was talking I would have said, okay I’ll talk to them. I know it’s hard. And I would have just been like solving all through the conversation.” And she said, “Instead, I just listened. I was just really present with him and I listened to what he said and it got done, and I said, it sounds to me like you’re really overwhelmed and he sat down in the chair and he said I am so overwhelmed.” And she said, “Okay, I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed. Let’s figure out what we can do. Then they were actually getting at the real problem. He was participating in the solution in a way than he wasn’t when he was ranting and she was fixing and they were able to make some plans and he left feeling better and more empowered and not so freaked out and all the things we talked about with that ambiguity and change and challenge, like she really got into a place where he can engage and bravely participate in what was happening.

Kelly: Yeah. That is such a perfect example because it’s not just about him feeling empowered but she was holding space for him. And so look at all the positive things that you just mentioned like he felt, seen, heard, understood, he participated in the solution process. If there are some of you listening wonder like why can’t my team just like do this themselves, why can’t they just take the initiative? It could be because they’re fearful, that they’re not doing something right. It could be because their roles are maybe not defined really well or what’s expected of them isn’t really defined very well. But if you want them to take an active role in the problem-solving, sometimes it is just about empowering them. So that was a great example because I’m sure that a lot of people have team members who come into their office like that all the time.

Leslie: Absolutely.

Kelly: I know.

Leslie: And I think the other thing is people are like, “I don’t have time for all of that. They just have to solve it.” And I would say that that took less time than it took for her to be interrupting him the whole time he was talking and then just her running off to solve things that weren’t actually the problem.

Kelly: Right.

Leslie: So I would also challenge people to think about time. And the things that you think I don’t have time for that, and just challenge yourself to think about how much time does it really take in comparison to the time it might take to clean something up or to rework something after the fact. Because often it is much more effective to listen and to pay attention and to coach and bring people to their own solutions. It may be more efficient to just give somebody the answer, but I think we really have to pay attention to that sense of effective versus efficient.

Kelly: Yeah, and again the thing that comes up for me with that is it’s not just the time that it takes to have that conversation and whether you’re solving a particular problem if that person comes in with. But ultimately what we want to do is we want to teach our people to fish. So like for me, it’s look at the lifetime value of the time, like if you can help them to figure out, okay well once I recognize like yeah I’m feeling really overwhelmed, let me try to figure this out on my own, what are the core issues. Now I don’t necessarily have to come back into my boss’s office for that solution.

Leslie: Exactly.

Kelly: So like lifetime value of the time that you’re saving is a huge one.

Leslie: Absolutely. And then they will also be able to do that for others. So everybody’s leading all the time. So they then have experienced that with you in such a way that they can offer that to another colleague. Somebody comes to them and they’re all worked up, they can actually think, oh what was helpful to me was sort of allowing that space and understand what’s really happening. And so, now you’ve also expanded, you’ve extended yourself with these other people who know how to do this and that also is about your culture.

Kelly: Yeah. So that’s actually a great segue. I know that you authored a book a few years ago called Finding Time to Lead. So tell me a little bit about that and then also where people can find that.

Leslie: Sure. So here I have one. It’s called Finding Time to Lead. And I named it that because of this idea of sort of who you are is more important than what you do. So if you’re like I don’t have time to do all that leadership stuff, actually you just need to do your own work and think about how you show up and that is the leadership stuff. And so finding time just becomes what you do. And so there are really specific practices in there. I talk about the listening in there. I talk about some of the values, deciding who you want to be and how you want to show up and then some really specific ways of doing that. To. It’s really written for CEOs. It’s applicable to everyone but it’s pretty specific to CEOs. So I think for owners, there might be a lot of really good information. And also I wrote it specifically to be a pretty quick rea and to be very practical. A lot of business books I think are really long and I feel like I could have read the most important parts in an article. And I tried not to do that so this really has like here’s three tips at the end of each little chapter about things you can do and why that might be helpful.

Kelly: That’s actually really funny because sometimes I read books like that as well and I’m like I definitely could have, like if this was consolidated down to about 15 pages as opposed to like 150, I would have been pretty happy about that.

Leslie: Exactly.

Kelly: So Finding Time to Lead and you’re letting them find time to read so I love it.

Leslie: Exactly. That’s what I always get. If I could just find time to read and it’s on Amazon, you can get it there.

Kelly: Perfect. And how can people find out about you other than for your leadership development training.

Leslie: Oh there’s also a website that goes with the book called And you can actually download a little workbook that goes with the book there so you can get some sheets and things that go with the tools in the book. And then I am at

Kelly: Perfect. I will put both of those in the show notes for today’s episode and thank you so much for joining me on the show today. This is a great conversation.

Leslie: It’s been great fun. Thanks Kelly.

Kelly: Take care.

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