The Guessing Game: What Does The Boss Really Want?

It goes like this: you’re briefed on a new project by agency planners, but the brief is a bit vague and lacks a clear, singleminded goal. So you attempt to get clarification from your creative director. The only problem is, he’s swamped. His schedule is booked up with meetings for many days. Or perhaps he’s traveling on business. You can’t wait, so you decide to send an email in hopes of getting clarification. When he finally replies, his cryptic answers only create more questions. 

To make things worse, you know from past experiences that the executive creative director and/or chief creative officer isn’t always in agreement with your CD. So you’re left trying to guess what everyone wants. When you eventually present ideas to your CD, you discover that you’ve missed the target. So you make adjustment after adjustment until your CD is satisfied. 

Finally, you’re ready to present to the chief creative and he declares that your ideas are all wrong. The strategy, language and tone aren’t right. Now you’ve lost two weeks and are starting over, with a deadline quickly approaching. You’re suddenly in panic mode. It means working nights and weekends, jamming to develop new ideas and meet the deadline.

If this has happened to you, please know that you are not alone. This happens almost everywhere. Rarely do chief creatives exercise good leadership. Rarely do they accept responsibility for strategic blunders. Rarely do they clearly communicate their vision. It’s an epidemic.

There are many problems in corporate culture today. Despite so many ways to interact and communicate—emails, texts, instant messaging and meetings—there’s a massive failure to clearly articulate objectives and strategy. Especially between middle management and senior management. So the rest of us are forced to guess what the higher-ups want. Even then, the higher-ups often disagree among themselves.

Usually, the people held most accountable—or who receive most of the blame—are the ones at the bottom, doing the actual work. It’s a great source of frustration, bitterness and resentment.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen middle managers (CD’s, GCD’s and ECD’s) fail to get in alignment with chief executives. After many weeks of sweat and toil on a project, the chiefs execs finally review the work and declare “the strategy is all wrong” or “this isn’t what we want to say.” At which point, it becomes a do-over in panic mode.

Why don’t people at the top talk to each other? Why don’t the chief executives clearly communicate their vision? Why don’t middle managers communicate their strategy for executing that vision? Why doesn’t all that happen before conducting many weeks of creative development? Why aren’t there more frequent check-ins? Wouldn’t it make more sense to thrash at the beginning of the project, while there’s still time?

Here’s the greatest tragedy of all: Workers who are forced to play The Guessing Game lose all trust and respect for the bosses. And when that happens it’s like a flesh-eating virus. Frustration, bitterness and resentment breeds apathy, which creates high turnover.

However, wherever there’s a problem there’s an opportunity. In this world of inefficient, ineffective, spineless, poor communicators, who lack leadership, vision and refuse to accept responsibility, there’s an opportunity for you to be a stand out. A gigantic stand out. 

You can become a star performer and a catalyst for change. Someone who initiates, leads and communicates clearly. Who accepts fault for missteps. Who hates to waste money. Who respects people and their time. And who everyone wants to work with.

The greatest opportunity lies within middle management. If you are a manager (CD), you have access to the top and the bottom. You can affect the most change.

The solution is simple: Insist that creative development does not start until the strategy (and the platform) is set in stone. However long it takes. It will make a world of difference.


To receive posts via email, please subscribe at the top right of this page.