Are you too nice to be a leader?

The leaders that made me: Blue State MD Hannah Johnson reflects on a boss who gave her some stark advice.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2020

If you trace back how you developed as a leader, it can be easy to focus mainly on the successes, the high points that make it onto your CV.

For Hannah Johnson, the youngest MD across WPP-owned creative agency Blue State - and one of Management Today’s 35 Under 35 2020 - there have certainly been a few of those. Since she joined in 2016 the firm has grown by 20 per cent, building on a client list that includes Lloyds Banking Group, the Movember Foundation, UNICEF, the Cabinet Office, the Equality & Human Rights Commission and more. 

But if you’re really honest, it’s often the low points in your career when you learn the most. And Johnson knows exactly when that moment was. 

“I’ve always had strong mentors in my bosses throughout my career. But at 26, managing a team of 12, the company where I worked hired a new managing director, who sat in on our weekly team meetings and offered ‘feedback’. 

“‘You’re too nice,’ they summarised, having watched me lead a team meeting. ‘You’re a people person who is keen to please everyone. That may be what a team lead looks like but it’s not what business leadership looks like.’

“It upset me at the time. The suggestion that I was inherently the ‘wrong sort of person’ to be in management was a blow. At this point, I hadn’t ever really been taught how to receive, take on board and respond to criticism.

“It’s happened over time, but I wish I’d been more prepared for it as I moved into middle and then senior management. It’s something I’m acutely aware of as I develop our team now.

“A few years later, I can see that they were right in some ways - there are moments when you need to prioritise business goals or outcomes above your own favourability. 

“The moment when you move from colleague to manager and then to leader changes how you’re perceived by others, and how people look to you to set the right example. 

“I felt this as a shock at the time, alongside the feedback I was given. It took some time to understand what it meant for me, and to realise that relationships with colleagues may become more professional and less friendship-based.

“But overall, I think leadership - style, approach and manner - is changing. And I think being a ‘people person’ is actually a very good trait in a leader. I am still an optimist and I intend to stay that way, but I communicate this optimism more cautiously these days.

“This moment crucially taught me about resilience. The more senior you become, the more criticism you will likely face. It’s how you take on board and respond to this that will in time allow you to carve out the leadership style that is right for you.”

Image credit: Blue State


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