Leo Burnett: Selling Wellness

Advertising firm Leo Burnett is using mindfulness training for leaders to make everyone more productive.

Leo Burnett is an iconic advertising agency known for producing such memorable characters as the Jolly Green Giant, Tony the Tiger and the Keebler Elves. But in the world of advertising you can’t rest on what you’ve done. Even after 83 years and ranking as the No. 2 ad agency in the country, according to D&B Hoovers, Leo Burnett’s leaders know the only way to stay on top is to constantly generate a stream of innovative new campaigns.

Brenda Strong, EVP, director of agency resource optimization,  Leo Burnett
Brenda Strong, EVP, director of agency resource optimization,
Leo Burnett

That takes strong leadership and a culture that embraces collaboration over conflict — particularly in the face of change, said Brenda Strong, executive vice president and director of agency resource optimization for Leo Burnett in Chicago.

In 2016 Leo Burnett’s parent company, Publicis Groupe, went through a major restructuring that included acquiring Ardent, an analytics software company, and hiring its founder, Andrew Swinand, as Leo Burnett’s new North America CEO. Swinand brought more than technical savvy to the global agency; he also introduced “conscious leadership” to the organization.

Swinand had spent several years learning this approach through the Conscious Leadership Group, or CLG, a consultancy founded by Jim Dethmer and Diana Chapman that teaches leaders how to reduce strife in the workplace, attract and retain top talent, and increase engagement through a more mindful approach to management. Swinand found the program helped his previous company’s leaders tap into a more creative and collaborative environment. When he joined Leo Burnett he brought it with him as part of a broader culture change effort.

“It is all about owning your experience and reducing drama,” said Strong, who came with Swinand in the move. “It can be transformational in big and small ways.”

The program, which is taught through workshops and forums, is based on 15 leadership commitments that include things like “choose to live in the moment,” and “stop blaming others for your situation.” The ideas are particularly applicable in the fast-paced, high-stress environment of advertising, said Eric Doctors, former senior vice president of learning and organizational development at Leo Burnett, who retired in July. “You can’t burn hot all the time,” he said. “Conscious leadership creates a space to pause, breathe and be authentic in helping your people move forward.”

From the Top

The challenge was how to scale the concept and intimacy of the learning for a much larger organization. The workshops typically involve small groups of leaders practicing the commitments in a “circle of trust,” Strong said. “It wasn’t feasible to roll out to 1,100 employees all at once.”

The learning and development team began by inviting the founders of CLG to run monthly training workshops with about 40 senior leaders in the organization, introducing them to the concepts of conscious leadership. Then they began hosting mindfulness morning sessions for leaders to encourage creativity in the agency.

The sessions focus on discussing the leadership commitments and how leaders can begin to reframe the way they engage with their teams and adapt the team culture to a more mindful style of communication. “The concepts are easy to relate to,” Strong said. But it takes time for leaders to practice using these strategies in small group settings. “It helps leaders think about how they behave in work situations and how they can surface ideas more effectively.”

In 2018, the company launched workshops for the next level of leaders. They are invited to sign up for the monthly events so they can get familiar with the basics. Then they have opportunities to participate in facilitated discussions where they meet with groups of peers to discuss challenges they face on their own teams and how to use the commitments to address them.

During the 18 months since rolling out the program, about a dozen senior leaders have stayed active with the training and workshops, and about 75 to 80 vice presidents and senior managers have shown interest, according to Doctors. That’s an impressive rate of response. “In advertising you can’t mandate people do anything,” he noted. “If they want it, great, but we don’t make them.”

Conscious Book Club

Steve Grosklaus, chief analytics officer for Leo Burnett, was one of the first leaders to participate in the workshops, and it changed the way he thinks of himself as a leader. “Every day we walk in at 8 and immediately get to work,” he said. Attending these workshops helped him realize that taking time to stop and reflect on the work they are doing adds real value. “It makes us a better organization and better individuals.”

He was so affected by what he learned that he shared a copy of the book “The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership” with all 50 members of his team and now hosts a conscious leadership book club. For the first meeting, he asked everyone to read the book, then to email him the three principles that they felt would have the most impact in the team along with one that they didn’t like. “About half of the team actually read the book — the other half reviewed a CliffsNotes version,” he said. But they all came to the meeting with opinions. Based on their feedback, the group compiled a list of three goals: Eliminate gossip, identify others’ needs and partner to solve them, and be open and honest — even if it forces you outside of your comfort zone.

“It was the starting point,” Grosklaus said. The team talked about ways they could address these goals in their day-to-day interactions with each other and other departments, and they meet every couple of months to share stories and talk about what’s working and what isn’t.

“It’s gotten to the point in meetings now where people will self-correct,” Grosklaus said. If someone is gossiping or playing the victim, they often catch themselves and shift gears, or others will jokingly point it out. “Awareness makes it work,” he said. “We are getting better all the time.”

Grosklaus noted that his team members, who are predominantly math and analytics majors, have benefited a lot from the thoughtful nature of this process — particularly when it comes to collaborating with other groups at Leo Burnett. “Our brains are wired differently,” he said with a laugh. “But this process has helped us become more self-aware.”

Happiness Is on the Rise

While the company doesn’t plan to offer the full program to all Leo Burnett employees, Doctors’ team has organized larger seminars for anyone interested in learning about the commitments and what they involve. They are providing the books and online learning materials for further study.

Leo Burnett’s Steve Grosklaus

Even without direct training, he is confident that introducing the conscious leadership concepts at the top of the organization will have a cascading effect on the entire corporate culture. That shift is already starting to have an effect.

While it’s hard to measure the impact of the training, Doctors noted that bi-weekly pulse surveys show happiness trends are on the rise, along with other positive metrics. “People feel more optimistic about the future of the organization, and they feel leaders are more responsive,” he said. He has also heard frequent references to the leadership commitments in meetings and day-to-day conversations. “Leaders are talking about it, and it is building momentum.”

He’s also witnessed changes in the way leaders and employees deal with chaos and frustration in the workplace. For example, the company recently went through a major office remodel, shifting from private offices to shared common space. “People were grumpy and the leaders faced a lot of noise and push back,” he said. Before the training, many managers might have a knee-jerk instinct to tell their people to suck it up and get back to work. But Doctors saw many leaders taking a more pragmatic approach. “They were pulling together and resolving the negative feedback with more positive dialogue about the change,” he said. “It helped people move forward instead of getting stuck in the past.”

While it can all sound a little touchy feely, Strong noted that the leadership commitments and the related training have practical implications for the business. “Happy people are more productive,” she said. And in a creative industry, freeing people from the conflict that can bog down a corporate culture just makes good business sense. “If you can cut out the drama, you increase the time and energy people spend on the job itself.”